Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Counting down the days

9 December, Krakow

At last. That’s how I felt last Sunday when a lifeguard at the pool ambled over to where I was floating on my back to see if I was alive. I was; he walked away.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a five-minute float followed by a five-minute tread-water at the end of my laps. And that was the first time any of the lifeguards at the pool had actually gotten off his or her chair to see what was up. To a person, the lifeguards are actually pretty indifferent to their role, usually they’re staring out the window, talking on their mobiles or sending text messages. May we swimmers never need them!

Yes, I am counting down the days until Christmas in London and my return to the US on 3 January. My best-friend-from-grad-school Jean and I now have a hotel and someone to pick us up at the airport on Christmas Day and return us on New Year’s Day. Jean’s looking at guides to decide what she wants to see; I’m looking at restaurants to decide where we might eat. Seemed like a good division of the tasks!

I’ve begun to get organized about my move -- this time I’m making a list of what’s where: what I’ll leave with Hala, what’s going in the suitcase that will be shipped to Minneapolis, what’s being given away. In a week I’ll be moving from my apartment.

My friend Inga is becoming the Saul Alinsky of Krakow. Inga's a native Pole married to my PC friend David. They have a house in DC but are living here now for David's job. Inga's organized this neighborhood against issues surrounding Krakow's new city-owned underground parking garage. The neighborhood is in a high tourist area -- this flat looks out at Wawel Castle and is half a block from the Wisla River. The city tried to surreptitiously eliminate all on-street parking in the neighborhood, including for residents, and force them into the garage at 700 PLN per month (that's $250, which isn't much less than the average monthly salary in Poland).

Knowing the garage was to open soon, Inga followed her gut and kept calling the city about what the plans were ... was shifted from office to office but finally learned what was to happen. In a heartbeat she started calling neighbors and had 100 here on Sunday.

Inga used to work in advertising so is very media savvy and has gotten lots of publicity for the 'parking scandal' in all media. While the 'no parking' signs are down, no one trusts they'll stay down as the new poles are still standing. The group met with the mayor last night, and he's agreed to bring the issue to the city council next week.

Today the garage opens and when Inga walked the dog this morning, she went to check things out. The city already has police on duty there. The neighborhood group will be at the opening later this morning -- and I'll be the official photographer. So off to the shower so I can be a presentable rabble rouser.

11 December

First an update on the protest, which went very well. About 70 neighborhood residents arrived earlier to attend the opening ceremony and make their concerns known. A horde of media, print and broadcast, were on hand early too and interviewed a wide variety of people in addition to Inga, Danuta and Pawel, the neighborhood organizers. Interestingly several camera operators organized the group for photo ops with more impact. Lots of follow up reports, mostly giving good positive coverage to the neighborhoods concerns. See photos in my MobileMe gallery. http://www.gallery.me.com/suzihagen/100247

And look for photos of the Winternational holiday programs that Inga and David’s daughters, Tosia and Frankie, participated in at their international school. Tosia was the tortoise in a re-enactment of The Tortoise and Hare. I tried making videos, and it seems to have worked. You’ll see Tosia in action in two: http://www.gallery.me.com/suzihagen/100256

The following night’s performance of The Wizard of Oz featured Frankie as the Scarecrow in Act II. All of the central characters changed during the second act to allow more student participation. The production was surprisingly good, especially given how small the student body is (about 200 total). Although nervous beforehand, Frankie did a lovely job -- remembered her lines, could be heard and gave the scarecrow a slightly different personality from the one in Act I. More importantly, along with the rest of the cast, she looked like she was having a good time. http://www.gallery.me.com/suzihagen/100271

Work on the parking garage protest continues daily, and like all good movements, it’s getting caught in bureaucratic and political machinations. Important meetings with local political lists (council members from same political party) and others. So I’m going to return on Monday to help Inga with the girls. That way she won’t have to worry about meeting the school bus at 4:15.

Everyone in Sandomierz seems to be sick with a flu bug (not swine flu, thankfully). My friend Hala from the Center has been home with a high temp since the board meeting. Her husband’s temp was so high that he’s in the hospital. So far, I’m healthy. Fingers crossed, thumbs buried (Polish equivalent) and all prayers and warm, positive thoughts aiming to keep me that way.

This weekend I’ll finish packing up, moving suitcases, boxes and such to either Hala’s or Hotel Basztowy, where I’ll stay until I leave for Warsaw early in Christmas week. This latest adventure is winding down quickly. And part of me is very happy. Even I, the “world traveler,” can get homesick.

13 December, Sandomierz

Chaos. That’s what my apartment looks like right now. Two partially packed suitcases, for Krakow this week and London for Christmas, are open on the bed; one lonely packed bag for Minneapolis lies in a corner. Piles of to-be-packed items and to-be-delivered Christmas presents dot the floor. Drying laundry hangs in the living room while the final load spins in the bathroom. Hala’s son Marcin and his friend will arrive shortly to remove the washing machine to the farm. All-finished boxes marked with their disposal are piled in the entry. But the kitchen is the worst -- the limited floor space is littered with almost-packed boxes for Hala to store or keep, the counter holds half a dozen plastic bags of non-perishable food for the cleaning lady to take home, clean dishes are drying by the sink and the table is covered with foil-wrapped loaves of sweetbreads that I made yesterday (final load of gifts for Center management staff).

For someone who can endure tremendous upheaval at work, I am someone who needs a physically organized home. That has often surprised people who only know me by the unruly state of my desk in any office I’ve inhabited. Years ago one of my secretaries measured my pile of filing, and routinely when it got to more than 12 inches, she’d start reminding me to file it. Not understanding my system, she could not do that for me.

So it’s been tough living in this tiny space where a look in any direction belies the underlying organization of my packing methods. Some people would attack one room at a time; but like when I’m cleaning, it’s a little here, a little there and eventually a final zip of the last suitcase and I’m done. Go figure.

I wrote earlier about an era ending when the Centrum department store in Warsaw closed. Another era also ended: it was announced last week that the last daytime soap opera, As the World Turns, was going off the air. I remember that soap as well as Search for Tomorrow and The Guiding Light. Those latter two were broadcast live,15 minutes each after the noon news. That was lunch hour when I walked home from Greenock School for lunch. I watched faithfully while I munched chipped ham sandwiches on Wonder Bread and drank whole milk. I don’t recall anything about the story lines, but I did recognize some actors and characters in all three soaps in the articles about their closings. And I enjoyed the op-ed column in today’s New York Times by the daughter of a former soap star, whom I also recognized.

Later ... returning from dinner at my friend Halinka’s, I found the cars and ground dusted with snow and the air distinctly colder than when I’d arrived. The walk home felt good, a chance to walk off a huge Polish obiad (dinner) -- wild mushroom-onion soup that Halinka’s husband made, pierogi that she made from scratch, fresh green salad with a lovely pomegranate dressing, rice and roast pork, and apple squares. All delicious -- I could have stopped after the pierogi and been quite satisfied.

14 December, Krakow

Couldn’t sleep last night so Skype’d a few people in the US as Sunday turned into Monday in Poland. Time zones can be helpful on such occasions. Too much food and wine; too much going on; too much to remember, despite my many lists; and too much new bad news. Two recent and very unexpected deaths, the brother of one friend and the mother of another, both relatively young people. This holiday season only gets more depressing.

I’m back in Krakow to help Inga with the girls while she and her group continue to fight city hall, as it were. Documents and other information that was promised has not been provided, but the meetings continue. I’m glad to be here when the girls get home from school, to fix their dinner and oversee homework.

This season is doubly hard because Peter’s original diagnosis was made on 2 January. I still miss him and it’s been almost 11 years. But I miss the future I can’t have almost as much -- no bartering with his dad over who gets invited to the wedding, no trying to be a good mother-in-law, no chance to spoil my grandchildren. That’s why the kids of my friends are so important to me. I get to be “Aunt Suzi,” a synonym for Auntie Mame (remember her, you over-50s?).

16 December

I walked Besa three times today. She’s a pretty well behaved dog unless she sees a bird or another dog, then you have to hold a firm leash because she loves to chase. Last week Tosia was holding the leash as we walked Besa along the Wisla. Besa saw a goose in the river and took off down the hillside to get it ... dragging Tosia who was holding on for dear life. For a brief second I had visions of the two of them in the water. But my yell got Besa to stop as I grabbed Tosia. She was grass stained and muddy and a little unnerved but otherwise okay.

It’s kind of ironic that I’ve been doing that because a million years ago when my then-husband Bob and I talked about getting Peter a pet, Bob wanted a dog. I told him that was fine with me, but he needed to understand that taking care of it would be his and Peter’s responsibility; that I was not going to get up at 6 am in the depths of MN winter to walk a dog. That’s one of the few times Bob actually believed what I’d said; we got Peter a cat.

I decided to take our late afternoon walk so we could wait for the girls to arrive from school in the van. Nothing like standing on a street corner to show you just how cold it can be. The girls were later than I had expected, so I finally decided to take Besa home and return to wait for them.

The last-walk-of-the-night was an uncharacteristic trip to the common space at the center of the building. We usually walk in the planty (a park that surrounds Krakow’s Old Town and is nearby) or along the Wisla River -- and take along baggies to clean up after. But the temps had gone down even further, so I took the easy way out.

17 December

Weather report -- it’s -8C here, that’s about 18F. I was sure it was closer to 0F; it feels like that. The snow flurries of yesterday afternoon must have returned in the night; everything is lightly covered in white this morning. When I was in Switzerland, I borrowed a pair of my friend Maura’s snow boots to help shovel snow and help Oscar sled. They were the warmest I’ve worn, sheepskin lined, waterproof suede. Yesterday I went on line to LL Bean to try to buy a pair. All sold out -- all colors, all sizes. Guess it’s a cold winter everywhere.

Yesterday was a long day for Inga and the protestors -- but with a hopeful result. They were 27th on the city council agenda but had to sit through the entire session to be sure they didn’t miss their item (10 hours). Heated discussions among the council members; Inga said at one point she thought blows might be struck. But eventually the council voted 32 to 2 in favor of going further to find a solution. So that’s not the end.

We shared pizza for dinner, then did homework and played a few hands of “Bob’s card game,” Tosia’s favorite. For Christmas I got her three decks of cards and a box in which to keep them. Besa had taken a liking to the taste of the old playing cards.

At bedtime Tosia read me Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, and we had a talk about sisters; she and Frankie had had a spat earlier. I told her all big sisters think their little sisters are a nuisance when they’re small and vice versa. I had to explain nuisance. I said when they grow up, sisters appreciate and enjoy each other more; they have someone to talk to and share memories with. There were certainly times in my youth when I wished I were an only child ... but that was the self-centeredness of youth talking. I wouldn’t give up having a sister, my sister, for anything. She’s my best friend. I told Tosia that some day Frankie will accept her as a friend and not just a little sister.

Tonight Frankie made sugar cookies that she’s now decorating. I helped a little, but she’s a serious cookie baker and a good one. To help make up to Tosia a bit, Frankie let her taste-test the first cookie. Although I baked eight or 10 sweet breads for Christmas gifts this year, I didn’t bake any Christmas cookies or make shortbread, traditions that I’ve enjoyed in the past and kept even overseas. Perhaps next Christmas I’ll resurrect them, along with the Christmas morning brunch Peter and I used to host.

19 December, Sandomierz

Snow removal hasn’t improved much since my first sojourn here in ’94-’95. Although traffic had cleared snow from the main streets, sidewalks and side streets were packed. Made for a longer and more aerobic walk as I trudged from the hotel to the apartment today. I wanted to be sure everything had been removed and the flat cleaned before turning it over to the landlords tonight. Mission accomplished.

Also made a final stop in the rynek (outdoor market) to look for warm tights to wear under my jeans and a turtleneck to go with my new purple jacket-sweater. Not the best weather for trying things on ... so I trusted the bundled up women who assured me the item they offered would fit me. The “tights” lady was right; they fit and should be warm and still allow me to zip my jeans. But the sweater lady definitely thought I was a lot smaller under my four layers ... or the makers of the have no idea what “XL” is supposed to mean. The turtleneck at $12 will work since it’ll be under a sweater, but I definitely will never wear it without one.

21 December

Yesterday I helped Halinka and Marzena prepare gift bags for the children of staff members. Mostly boxes of various cookies and candies. Looking at the name tags as I tied them to the bags, I recognized many names from the very first such party I attended in 1994 ... and those “children” are young adults now. But since they’re still in school, albeit university, they qualified for gift.

The children’s gift bags are one of those Communist traditions that hasn’t gone away. Employers were required to distribute gifts to employees’ children and have a dinner for their employees. One of my friends said that often these were the only Christmas presents children would get in the old days.

Today was the annual Christmas lunch for the staffs of the Center and Hotel Basztowy. The gift bags were under a beautiful artificial tree decorated in gold. Our dinner was similar to a Wigilia (Christmas Eve) dinner -- meatless. It included traditional dishes like wild mushroom/onion soup and a sauerkraut side dish served with the fish. An empty place at the table was maintained in case of an unexpected visitor. Before we ate, we each took an oplatek (flat, tasteless communion wafer). Then we offered holiday ‘best wishes’ individually to each person and took a small piece of the other’s oplatek to eat. It’s a lovely tradition, and some of the staff are very effusive in their holiday wishes. I tend to stick with “Wyszstkiego najlepszego w nowym roku” (Everything the best in the new year), something I learned way back when.

22 December, Warsaw

The drive into Warsaw was non-eventful. Despite the cold and winds, the roads were generally wet but not icy. I finished a book en route, then as we neared the city, started to pay attention as the driver didn’t know the way to the apartment. Something I could do with my eyes closed since I’d lived there for two years previously.

After arriving, dumping my bags and getting the driver some lunch, I waited as Marta finished packing herself, assembled bags of Christmas gifts, her two growing kittens and their gear. About 1 pm they took off for Sandomierz, Marta is going home to the farm for Christmas. Then I took off to finalize some shopping, check email and get my Bluetooth to work. No wi-fi in the apartment at the moment. It had snowed a lot in Warsaw a few days before. Sidewalks were pock marked with uneven mounds of icy snow and puddles of frigid water. Intersections were a challenge, trying to step over or around the newly formed ponds without getting wet feet.

While my phone is a not-too-old Nokia ‘smart phone,’ my mobile operator is a new company, selected only for its cheap calling rates. Unfortunately no one at the place where I bought the phone nor where I bought the sim card could figure out the Mac-Bluetooth connection, and frankly they weren’t terribly interested in helping. And you know how adept I am at electronics. However, Piotr at iSpot came to the rescue again. He was his usual tenacious miracle-worker self. It took almost two hours of trial and error; what worked with my phone and his MacBook wouldn’t work with my phone and my MacBook. Go figure. But finally not only was Piotr able to get my phone and laptop to communicate and get me onto the web, but he showed me how and I made it work! This was essential as the only Internet cafe that I know is about eight tram stops away from the apartment.

Speaking of trams, I had quite an experience riding back to the flat. It was rush hour so the car was full. As we lumbered along, I swung from the overhead rail, my arms full of shopping bags, purse and laptop tote. Poles pride themselves in their politeness and good manners. Thus it wasn’t surprising when I first moved to Poland to see men and boys jump up to offer their seats to women of any age. Not so likely any more. In fact, all but a few seats in this tram car were occupied by unmoving able-bodied youths and men.

When a 40-ish man to my right got up from his seat, I decided to take his place. As I started to slide into the space, the right shoulder of my jacket was suddenly grabbed, and I was raised up and forcefully tossed to the side. I looked around to get a harsh look from the man as a woman with a small child sat down. I hadn’t seen them or certainly would not have tried to sit down; I know how hard it is to travel with a small child. As he started to walk away, I said in Polish, “Nie masz kultury” -- basically I told him he wasn’t civilized. He turned around and towering over me, asked what I’d said. I answered in English slowly, too shaken to remember more Polish. I told him that I wasn’t a bag of trash to be thrown aside, that if he had spoken to me, I would have stepped aside without his behaving so rudely. He glared at me as I spoke, then turned and walked to the middle of the tram car.

A young woman offered me her seat. In English, she said she’d seen what happened and was sorry. At least the women still have manners.

It’s a little ironic to find myself in my old flat in Warsaw today. Twelve years ago I was living here when my sister called to tell me our mother had died. Mom had a heart attack in Barbara’s apartment, and despite the fast response of the rescue squad, she couldn’t be revived. One more reason why I don’t look forward to the end-of-year holiday season.

When I started writing “Hello All” as a new Peace Corps trainee in November 1991, it was my mother who was the primary audience, even though I sent carbon copies, then machine copies and finally emails to dozens of others. My mom treated my leaving for Poland like I was going off to college again: She worried about me but fully supported my decision. She sent letters crammed with newspaper clippings and the occasional ‘care package,’ just as she’d done all those years before. I remember one article from a Pittsburgh paper was about the Ministry of Tourism supposedly distributing ‘goody bags,’ complete with condoms, to incoming tourists. Part way through my service, the 20-something son of a church acquaintance of Mom’s joined PC, moving to Ukraine, and my mother became his mother’s mentor, telling her of my experiences, reassuring her about the region’s safety and giving her advice.

That was the thing about my mother. She was always there for me, to turn a trite phrase. In my darkest hours, like when I decided to leave my husband, it was my mother that I sought first for comfort. And she was there, knowing exactly what to say, just as she had known exactly how to take care of me when I got the flu (check on me periodically to be sure I’m still breathing and bring tea and toast every few hours but otherwise leave me alone in my misery).

Considering our stormy relationship during my adolescence, it’s amazing that my mother didn’t ship me off to a boarding school or that she even spoke to me later. I was a terrible teenager, but my rebellion wasn’t overt actions like running away, sneaking out, smoking, drinking or dating unacceptable boys. For the record, I’ve never liked the taste of beer, couldn’t inhale to save my soul and technically wasn’t allowed to date until I was 18. More importantly, I was the oldest child, the responsible one, a role model for my siblings. My rebellion was targeted right at my mother. I don’t think I spoke to her between ages 13 and 17 without shouting, and I said some terrible things. Sometimes Mom shouted back -- probably so I’d hear her. But it all seemed to roll off her and not affect how she treated me. I guess, for better or worse, I was her daughter, and Mom figured I’d get over the adolescent angst some day. Which of course I did.

Over the years I’ve been praised and criticized for my practicality -- I’m nothing if not a practical person and have minimal patience for the theoretical. ‘Let’s find a solution and get it done,’ that’s me. And I credit that approach to my mother’s influence. She too was a practical person. Take her advice to me as I left for college in 1963: “Drink your whiskey straight, don’t mix your drinks, and nobody’s hands go above your knees except your own.” That was my mom.

And so was the woman with the wonderful sense of fun and adventure. She was the first one to dive into the lake or pool when we’d go swimming. Most of my high-school mornings Mom led my brother in singing “Lazy Mary Will You Get Up” at the bottom of the stairs. Mom led excursions to sites she thought we should see, from the many Revolutionary War forts in Western PA where I grew up to the zoo, opera and her favorite department stores in St. Louis near her hometown in Illinois to every Abraham Lincoln memorial in the greater Springfield IL area. And she never saw a “private road” in the Ligonier PA area that we didn’t explore. When my son Peter started spending part of the summer with my parents, Gramma organized a trip somewhere every year -- Sea World in Ohio, the World’s Fair in Tennessee, the east coast from Nova Scotia to Old Orchard Beach ME.

An accomplished athlete, Mom had little patience for my lack of athletic prowess. She once said that I threw a ball “like a girl,” and it took a while for me to figure out what was wrong with that since I am a girl. I later learned that my mother had played semi-pro women’s baseball when she worked for the Brown Shoe Company in St. Louis after high school. Baseball was her game, and her ball-throwing standards were high. My sister inherited my mother’s love of sports and athletic abilities. Barbara played Little League in the ‘60s, and I can always get Steelers or Penguins news from her.

Despite how long it’s been, I still miss my mother. Too often I’ll see an article or hear something or think of something that I know she’d enjoy. And I can’t pick up the phone or drop it in mail to share with her. I hope Mom knew how much I loved her.

Christmas Day, Merry Christmas (Wesolych Swiat)

It’s a bleak, rainy but not-too-cold day out there. No white Christmas here as many of my US readers are experiencing. And it appears there won’t be any delays in taking off for London this afternoon ... unless London is acquiring the snow that it’s northern cities and Scotland have in the last few days.

Last night I took the local train out to the suburbs to spend Wigilia with my friend Maryla and her husband Stas and adult son Tomek. They bought an old manor house in Milanowek more than 10 years ago and have been renovating it since. It had been used by a small manufacturing company in the old days and has needed a lot of work. It’s a lovely respite from the noisy, hectic life in the center of Warsaw where their flat is.

Three kinds of sledz (herring), tuna salad, “vegetable” (potato) salad, lox, fresh bread with salt-free butter and wine. And that was just the “starters.” We all voted to not have mashed potatoes with the main meal ... we were all stuffed already. We sat for 15 minutes or so to let things digest, then tucked tentatively into the traditional wild mushroom soup and groaned as sole and two kinds of cabbage were brought to the table -- all traditional Wigilia foods. No meat on Christmas Eve.

Aside: Actually carp is the traditional Wigilia fish, but like me, Maryla doesn’t like carp. For the record, I have tasted holiday carp in the spirit of the day and good manners. But I always envision the huge, ugly bottom feeder that I caught in the Mississippi River more than 35 years ago. Traditionally a Polish cook buys her carp live a few days ahead of the holiday, keeps and feeds it in the bathtub, then bonks the fish sharply before cleaning and preparing it in various ways. I understand buying live carp is no longer allowed under EU regulations, but virtually any store sells fresh and/or frozen carp in quantity at this time of year.

Okay, we’re not done eating yet ... this is, after all, a Polish holiday. And food always plays a large part of important days for Poles. So we finished the meal with three kinds of cake and tea, then we opened our presents.

When it was time to head out, Tomek drove me to the station and waited until my train arrived. He’s a new multi-lingual college graduate in international relations who’s suffering the same fate as too many of his peers in the US and elsewhere -- he’s having trouble finding his first real job. We chatted while we shivered on the platform. And Tomek suddenly said that he didn’t think that we’d had 13 dishes for dinner, a must for Wigilia obiad. I told him not to tell his mother or she’d be upset ... but we counted, and even without including the bread, I came up with at least13 foods.

And now to bed ... though I’m not sure I can sleep with such a full stomach.

26 December, Boxing Day, London

Where to begin? The airport yesterday was surprisingly busy. I had stayed overnight at the Marriott Courtyard, right across the street from Frederyk Chopin Airport in Warsaw, because I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a taxi on Christmas Day. So I slept late, had breakfast and made a sandwich to take along for lunch, and went to the airport about three hours early so the housekeeper could clean my room and be done for the holiday. I was only going to sit and work a crossword anyway.

Since I’d weighed my suitcases on Marta’s scale, I knew they were well within the 23 kg limit. That’s always a concern as the over-weight charge in the EU is a heavy one. Check in went smoothly, but I got hung up at security despite taking off my shoe-boots. (They have a metal arch and set off the sensors, so I remove them even when an airport doesn’t require that.) The security person emptied my computer roller bag onto a tray and sent it through again. He reached in again and pulled out my small zipper bag that has my medicines. Being a “just in case” person, I carry everything from aspirin to Zantac. The security person pulled a huge Swiss Army knife out; I had totally forgotten about it. Into the trash it went as the security person walked away to leave me to repack everything.

Through Immigration, I walked to my gate near the end of the concourse. I had finished my sandwich, pickles and a Coke Zero that I’d bought along the way, when a woman with a small child approached. She showed me her boarding passes, and I confirmed that this was the London gate. Smiling, she thanked me and sat down. Her head cover told me she was from the Middle East, didn’t speak much English and seemed a bit bewildered. I later learned her name was Dina. Her curly haired two year old was behaving like one, antsy and not content with anything. Having been through that in my day, I felt for Dina’s predicament and pointed out an airport stroller that she could use. After retrieving it, she sat her wiggly daughter onto the seat. I showed Dina the seat belts and helped buckle the little girl into the stroller, then went back to my book. Round and round the block of seats Dina walked and the little girl, whose name sounded like Tanja, almost fell asleep.

When I heard something musical in Dina’s purse that was near me, I stopped her on the next go round and said that I thought her phone was ringing. She stopped, rummaged through her large silver purse for some time before coming up with a cell telephone. After calling back whoever had called her, Dina seemed anxious. She fumbled with the phone as she turned it off, then showed the back of it to me and using gestures more than words, asked me to open it. Surprisingly I was able to get it off (I can never get my own open) and handed it back to her. With some difficulty, she finally exchanged the sim card for another, reconstructed the phone and returned it to her purse. She resumed walking; Tanja was getting antsy again, but Dina appeared nervous too. Was it the child, the phone call, flying or just my imagination?

I’m acrophobic and it’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with flying. It helps to remind myself of my belief that when my day comes, it’ll come regardless of whether I’m flying in an airplane or sitting in an easy chair at home. But I still have a modicum of anxiety before every flight, made worse lately by the increased hysteria around airplane security. We expect guarantees and perfection where there can be neither; idiots exist everywhere.

Dina seemed like a perfectly normal woman flying with a child. Why was I concerned? Was I unconsciously buying into the national delusion that sees all Muslims as potential terrorists? Weren’t more women becoming suicide bombers? Should I say something to the gate agents when they arrived? Had I just seen too many cop shows on TV? Was I being paranoid? But don’t terrorists count on Americans being naive and ‘nice?’ Part of me felt guilty for thinking like that. After all, I had no concrete reason for being suspicious of the woman. I was being paranoid. I went back to my book as Dina continued to walk with Tanja around the seats.

A flight to Istanbul at the next gate was called, and it caught my eye because so many people queued. I’m not sure where they all came from -- perhaps connecting flights -- as they continued to trickle in even after two “final” calls. Interestingly I counted two cello cases, a violin case and more than a dozen identical carry ons that could have held violins or other small musical instruments. Concert in Istanbul?

Our flight was called so I alerted Dina and got into the line. Tanja made a beeline for elsewhere the minute her mother let her out of the stroller. Once Dina had rounded her up, I motioned for her to get in front of me in the line. Perhaps because the flight wasn’t too full, they weren’t giving preference to passengers with small children. Dina gave the gate agent their boarding passes, and he started to look through her passport. He asked in English about a visa for UK, which she didn’t have but apparently needed. She rummaged in her purse and handed him some papers, indicating they were all she had. The agent consulted two others who looked online and found that indeed she had a reservation to Cairo. But apparently no boarding passes could be given in Warsaw. The gate agent handed Dina back everything and let her board. She waited until I finished, then walked with me down a long cold jetway to the plane. I asked if she needed help finding her seat, and she nodded. But as she boarded, a flight attendant showed her their seats, and I went a few rows back to mine.

Listening to the purser rattle off the safety measures in English, I realized that Dina probably could not understand what was being said, and she didn’t strike me as a seasoned traveler who would already know the routine. I grabbed my tote and book and went to the empty seat beside her. We got her buckled in, Tanja sat on her lap, then I did my own seat belt. I decided to stay with her, paranoia be damned.

I was flabbergasted when the plane started to pull away from the jetway while several passengers were still in the aisle taking off jackets and stowing carrying ons. And about half way through take off, I heard a resounding thud ... my heart fell to my stomach. The door to the cockpit had flown open and was banging against the toilet door. Let me see, how many more things could make be crazy?

We were leveling off when Dina put Tanja into the empty window seat and indicated she’d like a pillow. I got her a pillow and blanket for the tired child who slept through the entire flight. Dina dozed, I read, and the rest of the flight was uneventful; we even arrived early. Dina awoke Tanja, and we all disembarked. Thankfully the Arrivals Hall wasn’t as jam packed as I’m used to it being. I filled out my entry card and beside me, Dina looked lost. She could not understand the form, so I filled it out for her and she signed. She was from Egypt. I talked to the first ‘gatekeeper’ who said Dina could get a transit visa from the Immigration booth. But the Immigration agent said she needed valid boarding passes for her next-day flight to Cairo to get the that. The papers she had were only a printout of her itinerary, and the contact info was for a Cairo-based travel agent. She had mentioned going to a hotel several times. The Immigration agent directed us to go to a Transfer Desk, assuring me that I could return and exit without a problem. I explained to Dina that she couldn’t enter UK without boarding passes; she might have to stay at the airport all night. She shook her head ‘no’ decisively, saying that Tanja needed to eat and to sleep.

The Transfer desk was literally a large metal office desk in a hallway; the desktop was covered with an array of wines and other liquids not allowed past that point. As we approached, I asked if a party was in progress. “Only if you can drink it all right here and now,” was the smiling reply.

After I explained the issue, an agent looked over Dina’s passport and papers and asked if Arabic was her native language. She said yes, and carrying her passport, he asked her to follow him. She looked plaintively at me and asked me to come along. I felt guilty saying that I needed to leave, my friends were waiting. I reassured her that she was in good hands, as she seemed to be.

I worked my way back to Immigration, bewildered and a bit angry: Who in heaven’s name would put a young person in such a position -- having seen Dina’s passport, I know she’s only 26? Traveling internationally today is a nightmare when you have some experience and language skills, and Dina clearly did not. She wasn’t a terrorist; she was just a mother who was forced into the ‘deep end of the swimming pool’ without any life preserver. I’m glad I met her; she reminded me that I can still rely on my gut in sizing up people. And I hope that someday when someone is denouncing the American devils, Dina will remember one that tried to help her and speak up.

31 December 2009, New Year’s Eve

It’s been a week of wonderful adventures as Jean, my best friend from grad school, and I explored London. Having been there numerous times, I asked Jean to set the itinerary, which focused on culture as well as lots of walking. All great with me. I’ve never been into a London art gallery and only the British Museum before ... so it was both interesting and a welcome respite from driving rain to see the Turners at the “old” Tate, even if we didn’t find the works inspiring. Our cheap tickets to Wicked offered a wonderful view of the imaginative costumes and staging although the voices weren’t always understandable. Definitely worth seeing, theatre fans. Sherlock Holmes was playing in the local Odeons, but before seeing the film, we walked from Baker Street through Holmes’ haunts. We had hoped to see some familiar sights in the film but didn’t recognize much. The walk was invigorating and fun though. And I recommend the film.

Vesna, a friend from Macedonia who’s living/working in London, arranged for us to take high tea with her and her sister Ana at the Landmark Hotel, which she described as “the most beautiful place.” It certainly is right up there. Set in an atrium, the white-table-cloth tea room is divided into smaller areas with lovely green plants and flowers. The four of us each ordered a different menu and shared enough tea sandwiches and sweets to feed a small nation, all of it delicious.

As with so many experiences, getting there was ‘half the fun.’ Vesna had given us an address on Marlebone Road, which is quite long. So I picked a tube stop that I thought might work. Unfortunately London’s like New York City and St. Paul -- buildings are numbered, not street blocks, and buildings don’t always show their numbers, making it hard to know how far away an address is. So we walked a couple of blocks in the wrong direction before finding a building number to confirm that. Intrepid walkers that we were, we trudged briskly along in the right direction but on the wrong side of the street as the sky got grayer, winds grew stronger and temperatures got colder. Eventually we “ran out” of Marlebone and ended up at the Police Station to ask directions. And back we went on the correct side of the street, arriving at the beautiful Victorian hotel with plenty of time for a trip to the “loo” and a chance to warm ourselves before Vesna and Ana arrived.

An unexpected treat of the trip was getting to see Almaz, a friend from the project that I led in Ethiopia in summer 2008. Just before Christmas, I had hd an email from her; she is studying for a master’s degree at Oxford but would spend Christmas with friends in London. I zipped off a message to say I’d be there too ... and finally we caught up for lunch in a pub near Trafalgar Square and an afternoon of wandering Soho.

Getting to “Ronnie Scott’s” jazz club was no fun at all since we had to stand in the rain for about 45 minutes only to learn a reservation was needed (Vesna had been told it wasn’t) and the club was sold out. Tired, damp and hungry, Jean and I retired to a nearby bar/restaurant to decide what next. We ended up in a Gothic basement complete with skulls and black walls drinking marginal red wine while we waited for Vesna and Ana. Then the four of us went to Ronnie Scott’s upstairs bar and demolished a couple of “starter” platters and a bottle of wine. When the live music hadn’t started at 10, we were all too tired to wait longer and departed for our respective tube stops.

This morning we walked up Portobello Road where a surprisingly high number of antique and other shops were open. We browsed our way to a local coffee shop, took a break, then continued until we came to the cross street where the Vesna works. Although bad with remembering addresses and street names, I am nevertheless good at finding places where I’ve been before. The eclectic shop sells vintage designers apparel, antique furniture and decorative home accessories.

Late this afternoon we went to St. Martin-in-the-Field Church for a New Year’s Eve concert of operettas -- four soloists who did pieces from Carmen and West Side Story among others. The acoustics were incredible; no wonder Neville Mariner recorded so much there. We walked from there to Fitzrovia, a section of London where I’d never been, to an Italian seafood restaurant, Pescatori, that I found on the Trip Advisor site. I definitely recommend this place -- excellent food, wine, ambiance and service, even on New Year’s Eve. Pescatori’s “tasting menu” provided perfect amounts for our appetites -- Jean ordered coucous-stuffed squid, I had medium rare lamb chops, and we shared tagliatelli with wild mushrooms and a lemon tart and chocolate decadence. With wine and coffee, the check was very reasonable.

Now we’re both organizing and packing to leave tomorrow. After checking online about any changes in flights, rules etc., we’ve decided to leave at 7:30 am. Jean’s flight to San Francisco departs at 11 something, and mine after 5 pm. I’ll try for an earlier flight to Warsaw if one’s available, otherwise just hang out at the airport.

Happy New Year!

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