Doesn’t the rhyme go, “April showers ...”?
1 May 2010, Minneapolis MN USA
First anniversary of the purchase of my MacBook. Went to the Apple Store today to learn how to delete something from my MobileMe cloud. That’s a backup that is stored off somewhere in outer space and can be used to sync my laptop with an iPhone, if I had one, as well as help me access my laptop from other computers. I don’t understand it one bit, but the backup seemed a good idea. And deleting was quite easy, once the Genius (Apple’s name for its Help Desk folks) showed me what to do. I love my Mac despite the problems with the hard drive while I was in Poland. It’s so user friendly, very intuitive.
Am getting ready to return to Poland next week. Will stay for a couple of months, including time in Krakow with my two ‘adopted granddaughters’ Frankie and Tosia while their parents travel to France, a trip to Macedonia to see old friends, and a trip to southwestern Poland with Hala and Michal. I love retirement! A possible short-term assignment in Ethiopia may interfere and if it’s offered, I will likely accept. I enjoyed the people, country and my work on that project in 2008. It’ll only be three months, a bit of additional traveling funds.
Janet, Ed and I have been walking around Lake Harriet sometime every day -- about three miles, and Ed has been timing us. When Janet was at their cabin with son Thom on Monday, Ed and I did the route in just under 17.5 minute/mile. I think that was our fastest. Perhaps we were spurred on by the drizzle that accompanied most of our walk.
The flowering trees are still beautiful, especially the crab apple. We three walked through the bulb garden near the Rose Garden to enjoy the last of the rainbow of tulips before the high winds blew them away. We’ve had a lot of wind lately, something I’m sure a weather person could explain.
Had a great day with my nieces, Tomery and Michelle. Lunch with Tomery, followed by a trip to Home Depot to buy drain cleaner. Her male roommate has clogged the bathroom drain somehow. Another of the downsides of male roommates, she says, especially young ones. This one apparently needs a mother or a maid because he cannot seem to pick up after himself. Starting in June, she’s gotten a one-bedroom apartment, swearing off roomies of any gender for now.
Mid-afternoon Michelle and I ran errands -- Ridgedale where she returned shredded sheets and we both bought some summer slacks on sale and Home Depot where she helped me pick out carpeting for my two bedrooms and set up a time for measuring. We ate dinner at Pracna on Main and walked in the nearby riverside park. In between errands and dinner we drove to Cedar Lake Park and walked a lower path behind friend Dan’s house (where Peter and I had lived during Peter’s last two weeks). We were trying to find the dogwood tree I planted there with some of Peter’s cremains during an annual memorial years ago. We scoured the various trails more than once but never found the tree for certain. That’s always been difficult because the forest changes so much between trips. Trees get taller and underbrush thicker, the shoreline erodes further and an incredible number of large and small trees fall. On my last attempt, my sister and I were sure we’d found the right tree. And she suggested we transplant it to a better, easier location since the rapidly deteriorating shoreline might consume it soon. I opined that having planted it without permission, I wasn’t sure we could explain uprooting it if we got caught ... and the trails were very busy with runners and hikers that day. So we surreptitiously trimmed nearby branches that shaded it from the sun, removed excess undergrowth and applied fertilizer sticks. Somehow my nephew Christopher can find the tree ... so I’m going to ask him to do that and tie a ribbon around it for future reference. He’ll be in MN in June sometime.
6 May, Czermin village near Sandomierz, Poland
If it’s ‘ciemny’ outside, I must be back in Poland. Ciemny means dark (overcast), the way the sky looks all too often here, regardless of the season. Having my friend Hala’s husband Michal’s fresh lettuce salad for breakfast is another way I can tell that I’m back.
After 15 hours of travel, I arrived yesterday in Warsaw at the ‘old’ terminal and had to go looking for the driver Pawel and Hala’s daughter Marta’s roommate Piotr. Somehow I missed Pawel who was actually parked near the exit to Terminal 1, but Piotr was waiting at Terminal 2. Since he knew where Pawel had parked, we walked over there. It was good to breathe somewhat fresh air and stretch my legs.
Piotr had come to meet me so that he could pick up the attachments to Marta’s Kitchen Aid mixer; she’s on holiday this week. She had ordered the attachments online and had them sent to me at Janet & Ed’s. The box was a bit bulky and heavy, so I opted to wrap all the pieces in my socks, tee-shirts etc. and carry in a small suitcase. All seemed to make the trip in one piece; we transferred them to Piotr’s backpack.
Carrying items that are less expensive in the US or not available at all wherever I am is a useful role we expats play for each other and our local friends. When my sister and niece came to visit me in Macedonia years ago, I sent them a long list of items to buy and packages to expect, and bring with them. Mule was a new role for them so when asked why she was doing this, Barbara replied, ‘Because my sister asked me to.’ Most of the items fit nicely inside the covered kitty litter box that I’d ordered and that became one checked bag. See? Easy.
My favorite story about this is a former project manager of mine. He was bringing two laptops for the office in his suitcase as well as some personal items for myself and another female staff member. Because he’d have his own laptop too, he asked me what to do if Customs stopped and questioned him about the extra laptops. I told him that I thought he should probably worry more about what to say when they found the woman’s wig, stockings and undergarments. He wasn’t stopped.
Yesterday the roads were clear and some of last year’s construction has been completed so more highway than byway en route to Sandomierz. And a pretty smooth trip once we got away from Warsaw’s rush hour traffic. As usual, I read a book to avoid seeing the scenery speed by faster than I’m used to. I did ask Pawel to slow down once; he got way too close to the semi in front of us.
After kolacja (supper) and catch-up time with Hala, I retreated to ‘my’ upstairs bedroom. Marta had been home over the previous long holiday weekend and had changed the bed and cleared a couple of drawers for me. I flipped on the laptop which immediately remembered all the Internet codes to give me access to the Information Highway. I checked and answered messages and overnight set up to download a couple of new TV episodes. Feels like home already.
I’m staying at the farm today. It’s yukky outside and I’m still pooped from my 18-hour journey. I promised to play cook for Michal and Hala’s parents -- vegetable soup, pork cutlet and mashed potatoes. I’d be severely remiss if I didn’t make the last because Hala’s mother knows I love Polish mashed potatoes. One time she remonstrated Hala for not making me enough ... and to me it looked like a sufficient quantity to feed the Polish army.
While we haven’t covered politics much, I did learn that more than 20 candidates are interested in the office of President of Poland. As I learn more, I’ll let you know.
7 May, Sandomierz PL
The ‘green houses’ of the village are abundant with fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes. Because Hala trades veggies with a neighbor, we have homegrown salad vegetables already. The neighbor gets the same from Hala later in the season. And we get fantastic fresh breakfast salads for a lot longer.
As I’ve traveled and moved and lived in various places, I’ve become aware of how ‘geo-centric’ so much of what I do is. It’s also time sensitive, that is, related to how long I’ll be in a given place. When I lived in Macedonia for 2 1/2 years, I got into a terrific exercise routine -- pilates three mornings a week, tennis lessons two and long walks on the weekends. During my 14 months in Serbia, I never got to the tennis courts, which were practically next door to our office, and occasional sit ups were as much as I could muster in home exercise. But I walked along the Danube and Sava rivers’ paths for an hour most mornings, listening to “Coffee Break Spanish” along the way, and I trudged uphill to a green market that was 40 minutes away on weekends, despite one nearer to my flat. Last year in Poland I took up morning swims, only a half an hour or so, but a marvel for someone who nearly drowned at about age 12. In Minneapolis, nothing beats a walk around a lake with friends, and Ed was good at suggesting a time every day when he, Janet and I would walk from their house around Lake Harriet -- three miles. I was in and out of town too frequently to get into a gym schedule.
I’m the same with breakfast. As you’ve seen, salads are normal when I’m staying with Hala and Michal; he makes delicious fresh salads every morning. But in the Balkans it was usually low-fat, thick Greek-style yoghurt mixed with crushed walnuts and topped with fresh or frozen fruit. And back in Minnesota, it’s natural peanut butter and low-sugar blackberry jam if there’s ‘good’ bread for toasting, otherwise shredded wheat or oatmeal.
I bring this up because of a recent conversation with my friend Tom. Although Tom lives in St. Paul and we had several mutual colleagues, we never met until we were both assigned to Peace Corps Poland IV. Tom was our group’s rendition of Felix from The Odd Couple, while our colleague Bill, assigned to the same city as Tom, was Oscar. My PCB (Peace Corps Bestest friend) Susan from Texas and I went to Szczecin to visit; I stayed at Tom’s, she at Bill’s. Tom’s apartment was Felix worthy. I was politely ordered not to clean up after dinner as Tom would only re-do everything (I washed the dishes anyway). Bill’s bathroom was in such a state that while he was shopping for groceries, Susan cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. He was not particularly happy.
I don’t recall how Tom and I got to talking about clothes the other day, but I commented that I often wear the same thing several days in a row although I pack for every conceivable contingency. He accused me of not liking change. Me -- the woman who changed jobs every 18-24 months throughout her US career and more recently, countries just as often. And that got me to thinking about all of this. And I’ve decided that some things are geo- or time-centric ... and others are just too unimportant to waste time on when there’s so much more to see, do, share. What I’m going to wear often (too often?) falls into the ‘unimportant’ category. And the routines of each country make adapting to all the other changes more manageable.
8 May, Sandomierz
Eleven years ago at just about this hour in the US my son’s best friend Thom awoke me from my first sleep of more than an hour in weeks. I was at my apartment because Thom and another friend Dan (in whose house Peter and I had lived for two weeks) were staying with him that night. Thom called to tell me that Peter had died. Apparently he asked Thom to get some ice, and while Dan sat nearby, took his last breath.
Like most everything else in his life, Peter died his way ... still looking reasonably like himself, not hooked on pain killers, among friends and knowing his mother had the support at hand that she’d need. My sister and many local friends were always right there; my brother, his wife and my best friend had all arrived from out of town the day before. We’d been planning a Native American pipe ceremony for Sunday; we quickly changed it to a memorial. At his request Peter was cremated, and his ashes were to be taken to Lake Vermillion and Loveland Pass. I chose four other sites that he loved, including Hala’s farm. Peter came to love Poland almost as much as I do. His six-week vacation here became five months, and he’d planned to return before his father became ill. The bond that grew between him and Hala’s husband Michal transversed a language barrier and thousands of miles. Did you now they stopped smoking at almost the same time 5000 miles apart?
Last night we had our first ognisko (bonfire) of the season in Michal’s gazebo, and I tasted my first roasted kielbasa in a long time. Nearby is a stand of evergreens that were small saplings (is that the right word for a non-deciduous tree?) when years ago we added some of Peter’s cremains to the soil. Now the trees are well over his six-foot height and showing beautiful bright green new growth. Today I’ll go sit under the gazebo for a while and mourn my loss and celebrate the awesome spirit that was my son.
Oh, and I forgot to mention another first. On Thursday, Michal and I prepared our first ‘cooperative’ dinner. Quite amazing. Michal regularly cooks the midday meal for himself and Hala’s parents (in itself a bit amazing for a Polish male of any generation). Since I’d just arrived and was staying at the farm all day, I volunteered to help. So as I started chicken soup, Michal got out the already-cooked pork roast to defrost. I made kasza to add to the soup; Michal cut and fried thick slices of pork. I set the table and rounded up Hala’s parents, and Michal tossed the cooked kasza into my soup, opened a jar of homemade pickled plum halves and set food on the table. ‘Super kooperacja!’
It’s a tradition that during the afternoon on weekends and while still daylight on summer evenings, Hala and I walk to the nearby forest, then depending on timing and weather walk in the woods. Since her sister-in-law Malgoscia had come from Lublin for the weekend, she joined us on my first walk of the year. Days of heavy rains made the farm road to the forest ‘fun’ -- we long-stepped over puddles and tiptoed among the solid parts of the tractor ruts, keeping us mostly out of the squishy mud that seemed to be everywhere. As always, we stopped at the oak tree-shrine with its pictures of the Virgin Mary, plastic and dried real flowers, garlands of fake leaves, candle remnants. The forest floor was damp but lush with new greenery and the occasional wild flower. We found some lily of the valley and because Hala wasn’t sure of my translation of the name, she took a sample back. I checked the Internet and indeed it was lily of the valley. Michal later told us it was a protected plant and illegal to pull. ...
10 May, on the bus to Krakow
Just talked to my friend Inga in Krakow. She was testing to see if my phone was working and to let me know she’s taking daughter Frankie to the airport today for her trip to France, assuming the flight hasn’t been cancelled due to the Iceland volcano. I am more and more convinced that this volcano is Iceland’s way of getting back at Europe for ‘dragging it’ into the global financial crisis.
Well, Frankie has arrived safely in Paris with her school class, and her younger sister Tosia has once again reigned supreme at ‘Bob’s game,’ the card game Bob (of the CA coast trip) taught her last year when he visited. She has the wickedest laugh when she’s winning too.
11 May, Krakow
Lazy morning of coffee and crosswords, then made applesauce from a bunch of old apples before going out to run errands. A sunny warm day in May brought out a horde of school groups to visit the historic sites of Krakow. While Frankie and her International School group visit the Eiffel Tower today, school kids of all ages hogged the uneven cobblestone sidewalks near Wawel Castle , swarmed the Stary Rynek (Old Town Square) and stormed the souvenir stalls of the Sukkiennice (Cloth Hall). I do not know how a teacher can keep track of a dozen four-year-olds chasing pigeons around the crowded square.
Have played about 50 games of cards with Tosia since she got home from school. Not a complaint; I actually enjoy it. She’s become quite skillful and virtually always wins at Bob’s game; I occasionally take a hand at Go Fish. Now I’m trying teach her how to play simple rummy, but it may require more thought and attention than she can give the game. We’ll see.
Went to a concert tonight with my friend Ula at Ss. Peter and Paul Church. This is the Year of Chopin in Poland, marking the 200th anniversary of the famous Polish composer’s birth. Almost every night one can attend a concert somewhere in Krakow and I’m sure other cities. Last night’s concert featured Chopin Mazurkas along with some Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Arlen (Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and Ennio Marconi (Once Upon a Time in America) -- all well done by a chamber orchestra of six young musicians. Several pieces were added to the schedule after it had been printed. While I recognized the Arlen and Marconi and could tell a Bach, a second ‘season’ from Vivaldi and a Mozart, I have no idea which pieces from the last three were played. Frustrating but not enough to detract from the lovely music and setting. Afterwards, we started to catch up while sipping wine and eating a light dinner in the garden of a nearby restaurant, lovely way to end the evening.
Remember years ago when Chicago became dotted with individually painted bulls ... the Twin Cities did Snoopys in honor of native son Charles Schulz. Well, Poland must be doing pianos for Chopin. So far, I have seen two small pianos that were painted and situated in public places. Cool idea.
12 May, Krakow
When I get up in the morning, Inga has ‘dzien dobry, tvn’ on the television. That’s Good Morning, TVN. One of the two talking heads/hosts was a short woman who is actually round of face and body, not celery-stick thin and anorexic looking. Score one for real women.
I’m having my usual lazy Polish mornings, one of the nice things about staying with such good friends. I get up when I feel like it, fix coffee, grab the laptop and check messages, work on a crossword, make peanut-butter toast for breakfast. By 11 I’m ready to hit the shower.
Today, after that routine, I ironed for a couple of hours. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I like to iron; something satisfying it that task. I volunteered when I emailed Inga and David about staying here. Inga said she’s been saving ironing since then. I have a few more things to do, mostly flat stuff which is boring and will be done tomorrow. Afterwards I walked to the square for lunch, got a coconut ice cream, went to the Poczta intending to buy stamps (line was too long to wait) and refilled all my vitamins at the apteka (pharmacy). The clerk was very patient with my descriptions of what I wanted. While I was in the apteka, it started to drizzle so I hurried home.
13 May, Krakow
Gray skies today and continuing news about coming? proposed? presidential debates. I wish I understood more of what they’re saying. Need to talk to Inga when she gets home. I do know that one potential candidate has two serious sexual harassment/molestation charges against him; one of the women is pregnant. And there are lots of bad jokes about the former president’s twin brother who is running.
Caught a few minutes of dzien dobry, tvn this morning. Two new hosts, including a carrot-stick woman (that’s a slightly more realistic body type than a celery stick). So perhaps they rotate ...
14 May, Krakow
Busy day yesterday, especially in the afternoon. Tosia had tap dancing lessons after school so we met her there, then all hustled over to the train station afterwards. Inga needed to meet a train that was leaving at 6. Her aunt had sent something from Kielce, her hometown, as a wedding gift for the cousin who’s getting married tomorrow. Anyway, an hour seemed like enough time until we hit the streets that circle the Old Town; we crawled forward amid cars, buses and trams. Ironically we found a parking place that would be almost as close as the parking lot we were headed for. Inga pulled in, got out and ran to the train station, while Tosia and I plugged the parking meter and went to explore the posh Galleria Krakowska indoor shopping mall.
Inga called twice to say the train was going to be late ... 15 minutes ... 20 more minutes. Since Tosia was starving and wanted sushi, we went to a sushi restaurant in the mall where we’d eaten once before. Inga finally joined us, and we all enjoyed fish-less sushi for dinner. Inga said a Japanese friend of hers commented on all the sushi restaurants in Krakow and the uncommon fare some offer -- kielbasa sushi, anyone? This place was more traditional and quite good.
Back home we spent the rest of the evening figuring out what Inga and Tosia would wear to the wedding since the prediction is for cold weather. Their lovely spring dresses would require a few more layers.
Today as I ran errands, I realized two things. Yes, there are a lot of sushi restaurants in this city; I passed at least three as I searched for stockings and tights for Inga and the girls. And I miss Target. What a great one-stop shop for just about anything short of a new refrigerator. I walked to an old-style department store where I pored over package upon package that was either the wrong size or wrong color. Then into the Old Town where I realized just how many cafes, restaurants, hostels and art galleries we have here ... and how few stores that sell stockings for women and girls. But I did find what I needed and accomplished a daily goal -- exercise. Returning home, I arrived at the building just as David and Frankie were getting out of the car. They both flew into the Krakow Airport this afternoon, David from Kenya and Frankie from Paris, and Inga picked them up. Now they’re both napping and Tosia is impatiently waiting for me to play cards. Later.
15 May, Krakow
Everyone left early for Inga’s cousin’s wedding in Wroclaw, a three-hour drive. I’m dog-sitting, which means lots of exercise. Besa goes out three times a day. For the midday walk today, I decided on a really long one since I’d been indoors too much. That was quite a challenge as Besa loves to chase pigeons and goes crazy when she sees another female dog. Both seemed to be ubiquitous today.
This morning I was listening to BBC World News on the radio/computer. A few oddities. The intro headlined UK men’s need to pay more attention to their prostates and cautions about children’s TV watching, an odd juxtaposition, before a piece on something else entirely. Later they did a long segment on Muslims in Scotland, which caught my ear since my mother was born there. Apparently followers of Islam have integrated fairly easily into the land of my forebears, and in fact, are strong supporters of the Scottish Nationalist Party. I hope I can hear it again when I have time to pay more attention. It was quite interesting.
16 May, Krakow
Pouring rain again today ... started last evening. It’ll be a lazy indoor day. So far I’ve walked Besa (a short one as she hates rain more than I do), folded laundry, done some ironing, showered-shaved-etc., watched a full cycle of news on BBC. Time for my favorite boring-day activity -- Googling old boyfriends or wannabes. You learn the most interesting things, and of course it’s easier if they have uncommon last names. High school heartthrob became the lawyer he intended but had his license suspended for two years for unethical conduct! The love of my college days appears to be still living in Evanston and has son who was born same year as mine. My first post-college love died a few years ago, heart attack; he was divorced when we dated and apparently married at least once or maybe twice more, and he continued as a reporter. Hmm, who else can I find?
17 May, Krakow
Dare I say it again ... still raining. And worse, I checked the weather for Skopje, and it’s supposed to be rainy there all week. I’m glad this isn’t one of those expensive vacations where I go somewhere entirely new and play tourist and do touristy things.
Yesterday I walked Besa over toward the river for her midday walk. Because of all the construction on our street and Powisle (the street along the riverside park), I hadn’t walked that way yet; too hard to figure out how to get into the park through the maze of construction fencing, stacked materials and metal offices. I was flabbergasted to see how high the Wisla is ... the lower, bicycle path was covered with water in some spots. When David, Inga and the girls returned, we donned rain gear and walked with Besa over to the river again, which was higher yet. And this morning the lower path is covered. The news showed severe flooding in other cities that are sandbagging. I’m going out to take pix, buy a rain jacket (if I can find one!) and meet my friend Iza for lunch. More later.
Bought myself one of those cheap yellow slickers on my way to lunch. With my four layers underneath, I looked like a yellow Pillsbury Doughboy but I was dryer than I’d been. I took some pix of the river which now is well above the lower path’s fence and still rising. Will post them. Walking to Kazimierz (the old ghetto) for lunch with Iza, I hopped puddles and tried to stay away from the curb where fast cars showered everything in range. I parked myself at Arka Noega (Noah’s Ark) cafe with cappuccino and my latest mystery to wait for Iza. Over salads at lunch there and later dessert and coffee at Ariel, we caught up for a couple of hours. The rain had subsided somewhat by the time I puddle-jumped my way home.
18 May, Vienna International Airport
I’ve heard of and experienced snow days but never a ‘rain day.’ The girls went off to school at the usual time this morning but my 11:15 were home again. The school is across the river, and the water had reached the lower edge of the bridge floor. The paths along the river are all closed to gawkers and walkers. Our street is also closed with police tape zigzagging across in several places and a handful of cops standing around to keep people out. Inga has arranged for a driver to take me to the airport, which is on our side of the river, thankfully.
Well, at 2 pm word came that a major road to the airport was under water and the corner by our flat was log jammed with traffic. A moment of panic set in. Inga called the driver who was already en route, and we agreed I’d walk to the Radisson Hotel, three blocks away, and meet him there. He called when he was 10 minutes out, and I shrugged into my layers, closed out and packed the laptop and with David’s help, got down all the flights of steps without incident. Hustling down the street pulling my roller bag with two totes over my shoulder, I was out of breath by the time I spotted the black van. But the driver sw my yellow presence and quickly got out to help. We literally inched our way to the airport for most of an hour. It reminded me of one particularly bad snowstorm when I was working in St. Paul. So much snow fell so quickly that the plows could not get out to do their job ... so getting up the exit ramps on the freeways was a major challenge. Cars were stalled in the snow all over, making it nearly impossible to drive up an off ramp. My carpool driver had a little Pinto, and I navigated to avoid uphill ramps. It took us four hours to make a 30 minute trip ... but we did it without incident.
Today the little Eurolot little prop-jet took off on time, and of all the amazing circumstances, I was the only one in business class (and I was on a frequent flyer ticket!). Overall the plane was only half full anyway. Now I’m on my four-hour layover in Vienna where it is, at least now, dry. Not a drop of rain in sight. I’m enjoying a class of wine in the Austrian Airlines Business Lounge and next, an episode of Bones.
19 May, Skopje, Macedonia
The sun is shining! Okay, a few fluffy white clouds and a forecast of rain for tonight, but I was awaked by the brightest sunshine I’ve seen in weeks. I am renewed. I walked a mile or so to Enriko cafe for my favorite tuna-on-flat-bread sandwich, then to Vero supermarket to pick up a few things. All that sun and fresh air. Wow!
Had a couple of adventures on arrival in the wee hours of today. Everyone on the Vienna flight queued for some time with no one going through passport control. Word finally came to us that the computers weren’t working. Finally papers and pens were distributed to the Passport Control officers, and each of us was processed by hand. Our bags were waiting, but unfortunately outside my friend Dona was not. Tried calling her to no result; got in touch with Iva, the friend I’m staying with. No luck reaching Dona; I figured she’d fallen asleep. Negotiated with a cabby; it helped that I knew the dinar cost of the trip ... and it was a lot less than the 25 euro quote I first got. I finally arrived at Iva’s around 1:30.
21 May, Skopje
Your weather report: A bit less sunshine yesterday and a bit cooler than on Wednesday but still no rain. Ditto today. Now rain is predicted for Sunday and Monday when we plan to go on outings. Oh well.
Yesterday I walked and walked, into town and back twice. Had lunch at Dal Met Fu, one of my favorite places, and saw that they are implementing the new ‘no smoking anywhere indoors’ law. Years ago I had lunch there on New Year’s Day when the first anti-smoking law decreeing smoking and non-smoking zones in restaurants was implemented ... much to my surprise. There are so many smokers in the Balkans that I was sure everyone would just flout the new law. At least in my experience, few did.
Had a wonderful experience renting a car. I returned to the same agency that I’d always used when I lived here. It became a National Car Rental agency just before I left, which I feel attested to their service and solvency. Anyway, when I walked in, the same woman was at the desk and on seeing me, her face broke into a huge smile and she got out from behind the desk to give me a warm greeting. It was nice to be remembered after so long.
Violane and her husband Stephen drove over from Kosovo with John, a former Booz employee, now consultant, and Gani, the Kosovo project’s driver and one of my favorite people. We wandered over to the Old Town for a bit of sightseeing, and to my surprise, I ran into Liljana selling souvenirs. I got to know Liljana, who is head of the Macedonian Housewives League, when I was working there and introduced her to the Aid to Artisans project. Her group took part in ATA workshops and crafts sales. Another warm welcome from someone I haven’t seen in years. Macedonians have long memories!
I took the Kosovo group to my favorite outdoor cafe for tavcha gravcha (Macedonian baked beans) and chebabchi (small grilled ground meat fingers). Add some grilled hot peppers and shopska salad (cut up peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers topped with grated white cheese). Mm mm good.
27 May, Busko Zdroj, Poland
Almost home again. This small spa town is about halfway between Krakow and Sandomierz and the location of this year’s board meeting. The Center has a satellite office here operated by two women who are doing a super job -- generating new ideas for projects, identifying potential funding, submitting proposals and getting the job done. They’re taking us to see some clients tomorrow.
My week in Macedonia was renewing. Lots of sunshine every day, only a few dribbles of rain despite the forecasts. Skopje took heavy rain on a day when we were elsewhere. Since I wanted to see the eastern part of the country, we spent Sunday in Strumica in the far southeast near the Bulgarian border and Monday, a Macedonian holiday, in Kriva Palanka, northeast near Bulgaria. Iva drove; Dona, her five-year-old son Andrej and I rode the three hours to Strumica. Everywhere we drove the roadsides and fields were dotted with color, mainly red wild poppies and what looked like purple thistle and white Queen Anne’s Lace. We hiked up a wooded hillside more than half a kilometer to see a beautiful waterfall. Dinner in town at a grill restaurant, a small cafe that offered grilled meats, the best anywhere according to Iva. And after sampling some, I had to agree. Then we wandered around the town, had coffee, watched Andrej tool around in a tiny electric battery-powered vehicle. Strumica is the cleanest town I’ve been in of any in the Balkans. Rarely a scrap of refuse anywhere. The city park is big, lovely and exceptionally clean, not a pop bottle or chips bag anywhere in sight! ... very unlike the city park in Skopje.
Monday Iva drove and our friend Marija and I rode to a St. Joakim Osogovski Monastery near Kriva Palanka. Dating from the 12th century originally, it’s the second most important monastery in the country (St. Jovan Bigorski is the most important). The frescoes in the monastery church interestingly include Masonic and nuclear symbols. The drive took longer than expected, so when a short drizzle started, we left for lunch at Restaurant Park where we had reservations. It’s off the main two-lane highway between Skopje and Sofia ... way off. First we took a barely two-lane asphalt road, then a slightly-bigger-than-one-lane dirt road, followed by a one-lane, red clay road that quickly went down a short, steep hill. The further we drove the more we wondered why we needed reservations. Who could find the place? Then, before us was the restaurant complex complete with a large car park, a small lake, a small playground for children and a small zoo. Overlooking everything from the far hillside is a small Orthodox church. The restaurant consists of a series of outdoor eating pavilions on and around the lake as well as a conventional restaurant. Our pavilion seated at least 40 people, so I’d guesstimate the outdoor capacity at 200. When we left, almost every table was filled. While our meals were so-so, especially based on our expectations, the ambiance was wonderful. Fresh air, sunshine and short drizzle -- relaxation personified.
Tuesday Iva and everyone else returned to work, and I had coffee with Dragan, who started on the Macedonia project as an intern and stayed to become invaluable. He has an IT service business now and a wife. Lunch with Slobodanka, a ‘thank you in advance’ for taking me to the airport, and later coffee with Dejan and one of his project’s US staff to discuss possibilities. Shopping and packing, dinner at home with Iva -- we were both too pooped to go out any more.
Promptly at 3 am Slobodanka arrived to take me to the airport, and two planes and two mini-buses later, I arrived here at 4:30 pm. The room was small but clean and nicely appointed. The single bed was inviting with its beautifully ironed, startlingly white covers on the comforter and small pillow. After literally dumping my suitcase and carry-ons and changing into sweats, I laid down at 5 for a short nap. The bed linens smelled just like they had recently dried under the sun in the wind on an outdoor clothesline, an aroma from my childhood. No wonder I slept contentedly for 13 hours.
Today I went out exploring, to see the town, look for a summer suit (no luck on that one) and eventually have lunch. I found a pretty set of covers for my comforter and pillow and bought flowering plants for Hala, our translator Ewa, board member Anna and myself, to brighten our rooms. Walking back, I ran into Joasia, the local staff member who had picked me up at the mini-van and brought me to the hotel yesterday. She invited me to see their office and although I was kinda pooped and laden with several heavy packages, I went along and had tea with her and her colleague Iwona. We chatted in Polish about family, weather, the Center and such. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing with a new John Sandford novel on the balcony. Pure heaven.
Just got back from dinner with Joasia, Hala, Ewa, and Anna and another board member and their spouses. A third board member joined us late. Besides the flooding that everyone had seen and/or experienced, talk turned to politics and the coming presidential election. Everyone seemed concerned that Jaroslaw Kaczynski might be elected to succeed his twin brother, Lech, the late president. And no one could quite understand why so many high officials were allowed to travel together; apparently there’s no regulation on this as we have in the US and which most US companies have. The late president was buried at Wawel Castle in Krakow where only the most important Polish kings and statesmen are buried. His burial there was not totally popular. I remember Inga saying that the protests were quite large and vocal; she could see them from the apartment. In fact, one board member said that he led a protest at the castle, his first in 20+ years. Last night, though, what surprised me was the jokes that were being told. Some examples that I can remember. A foreign tourist in Krakow asked a local person, ‘What is the shortest route to Wawel Castle?’ And the response was, ‘First you have to get on a plane ...’ Or the one about the tour guide 50 years from now giving a tour of Wawel and the crypts of various kings and statesmen, identifying the heroism of each that led to his burial in Wawel. When the guide comes to the sarcophagus of the late president and his wife, he says, “They were very nice people.” Apparently that was pretty much what anyone could think to say about them; the president really hadn’t done much of anything noteworthy. Another story has the powers that be calling up the spirit of World War I hero and champion of Polish nationalism, General Jozef Piludski, to convince him to allow the Kaczynskis to be buried with him and others at Wawel. The general is adamant but is finally won over and says that at least he will always have a ‘cold Lech’ at hand. Lech is a popular Polish beer as well as the late president’s first name.
28 May, Busko Zdroj
‘A beautiful day in the neighborhood’ -- sunshine, a slight breeze and perfect temperature for visiting some of the Center’s clients. After hearing presentations by the staff, we walked over to the Busko Cultural Center and boarded a cleverly designed fake train for a ride to the ‘suburbs.’ The train business was financed through a loan from the Center. We met a carpenter who, after losing his job, started a business designing and making wooden garden furniture -- tables, benches, chairs, gazebos, flower and tree boxes, a children’s merry-go-round and more. Each is unique, hand made and from my perspective, ridiculously under priced. 1400 PLN, or less than $500, for a two-meter long, thick satin finished oak picnic table with two matching benches that have backs. The bench legs are attached to wooden slabs so the legs don’t dig into the ground and make sitting uneven. I’m sure the table alone would go for that price back home ... and near that in Warsaw.
After our usual way-too-big lunch (homemade mushroom soup, wilted lettuce salad, exquisitely prepared salmon with steak fries, and to-die-for house specialty chocolate cake with rum-soaked prunes and dark chocolate topping), we walked around the village where we were dining. We visited Ss. Peter and Paul Church commissioned by King Kazimierz Wielki (the Great) as penance for killing a priest. The king had a small castle in the village; ruins still exist. We don’t know why he killed the priest, and the marker at the church didn’t enlighten us.
A mini-van took us to the next client who is making briquettes from straw. Because of the floods, he had to disassemble his production line and move it to a higher location. So we couldn’t see it at work. But basically it grinds up straw at a very high temperature, then forces it into a tube that makes one long donut-shaped briquette which is cut into smaller pieces. The briquettes are becoming a popular source of fuel instead of wood or coal because they are less expensive and leave far less ash. The highest quality briquettes leave virtually none.
Our final stop was the thoroughly modern and newly opened Europejski Centrum Bajki (European Center for Fairy Tales) located in Pacanow, home of Koziolek Matolek, a little goat from Pacanow who travels the world getting into trouble and one of Poland’s most beloved fairy tale figures. You may recall that last summer Hala, her husband and I stopped in Pacanow en route back to Sandomierz and saw the center under construction. I love that the EU located it in an under-utilized part of the country that has such a memorable tie to the fairy tale theme. The center is dedicated in the name of Koziolet Matolek.
The creativity and imagination that went into the design and construction, inside and out, are awesome ... as is the 20 million euro price tag. But as Hala noted, many artists and a lot of high tech were incorporated into the facility which was built with kids in mind. For example, as you enter you see a coat check area that is located under a giant wooden end table with beautiful details in the carved legs and drawers. All guests must don red felt elf slippers over their shoes. (Requiring felt covers over street shoes is very common in Polish museums to protect their wooden floors ... and probably saves on floor cleaning and polishing too!) Tour guides dressed like fair tale characters treated us to a tour ala the usual group of elementary school children -- full of smiles, animation, queries and clever tasks. We shrank to the right size to enter through a mouse hole into the wonderland of fairy tales. A few highlights -- an interactive map of Europe that allowed one to drag a fairy tale character and place it in the country of its origins; holograms of colorful snakes swimming and diving in a pond; ‘snow globes’ with scenes from various fairy tales; a flower garden room where you could sit in a tulip and hear a story, crawl through a wooden log, rest under a giant flower. A wonderful way to end a long day.
31 May, Sandomierz
‘Home again, home again, jiggity jig.’ Hala and I drove back from Pacanow after the formal board meeting on Saturday. We passed through lower Sandomierz where the road and area along the river remain a muddy mess; water that breached the levee is sitting, waiting for the mosquitos to start breeding. Rain continues to dominate the weather reports and our days although yesterday was blissfully nice, partly cloudy with a perfect breeze for drying the clothes that I washed. I got in some quality gazebo time.
We’re definitely going to Wroclaw in southwestern Poland for the coming Cialo Boze (Corpus Christi or Body of Christ) holiday weekend. The actual feast day is Thursday, but the Center (and many offices) are closed on Friday too. Thursday will be a day of long religious processionals all over the country. I had no idea about this holiday because I’m not Catholic (or Lutheran or Anglican, some of whom also celebrate it) and it’s not widely celebrated in the US as it is here. It honors the Eucharist (holy communion) and its timing is based on when Easter occurs although it’s always on a Thursday, the same day as the Last Supper. It’s very early this year.
The first Corpus Christi celebration that I ever attended was in Tarnow in 1992 during Peace Corps. My Polish tutor from Minneapolis was visiting her brother and his family and invited me for the holiday. What I remember most isn’t how long the processional was, although it was definitely long -- three-plus hours -- or the thousands of people lining the streets. What I remember most is hundreds of nuns marching obediently in neat rows wearing full habits in brown, black, dark blue and their stern faces. I’ve never seen so many unsmiling faces in my life. Ironically this holiday was the result of a nun’s petitions in the 13th century.
For you geography and/or history buffs, Wroclaw was Breslau when it was part of Germany before the end of World War II. That’s when Poland’s borders were shifted to the west, moving Breslau, Posen (Poznan) and Danzig (Gdansk) into Poland, and Lvov and Kiev became Ukrainian cities.
Anyway, although Hala’s cousin won’t be there to give us a tour, he is leaving the keys to his flat with his mother so we can use it instead of a hotel. And he’s also leaving a suggested tour itinerary for us. I’m looking forward to seeing a new city.