Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A time to be thankful

4 November, Minneapolis MN USA

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

13 November, Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 November, Sandomierz

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

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

18 November

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

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

19 November

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

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

22 November

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

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

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

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

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

23 November, Czermin

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

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

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

24 November, Krakow

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day, Krakow

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

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

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

27 November, Krakow

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

30 November, Krakow

Well, beware what you wish for, right?

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

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

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

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

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