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:

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