Tuesday, July 5, 2011

‘Life is too short to drink cheap wine.’

4 June 2011, Hala’s farm in Czermin village, Poland

I’m slow getting started this month, mostly because after getting the news of Piotr’s death, I had no steam. Piotr was the younger son of my friends Ewa and Marek whom I got to know while a Peace Corps volunteer in Nowy Sacz. Ewa died of cancer in January 2002, about a month after I saw her last and a few months after the wedding of their older son, Wojtek, which I had attended. Piotr and I had bonded, perhaps because he had the same name as my son Peter and a somewhat similar personality, full of energy, off beat humor, keen intelligence. His touch of sarcasm came through even when his English wasn’t perfect. I used the Polish-only version of Google and found his obituary and some comments on an IT blog headed “Only the good die young.” From that, I found that he had many admirers and friends, just as I’d expect. I also learned that he was 30 when he died at the end of October last year (I wasn’t sure of his age). He apparently worked for Google in Krakow. I can just picture him in that kind of irreverent, creative, energetic environment. After talking to Wojtek on the phone, I wrote to him with my contact info. I will write to Marek but need time to compose my thoughts first. I don’t know what to say in English or Polish other than “I am so sorry” (Bardzo mi przykro).

Today I sat under Michal’s gazebo and prepared dill for drying. Hala harvested the tall stems, twisted off the dirt-laden roots and presented them to me along with four dryer plates to be filled. A nice way to spend a hot afternoon -- mindless work in the cool shade.

My right thumb is green from using it to separate the smallest stems from larger ones. I timed myself -- 45 minutes to fill a plate. Hala came to help for a while before going to fix obiad (dinner). By the time she had obiad ready, I had filled all four dryer plates. and Michal had them in the dryer. Because we had dessert (fresh strawberries that I bought at the outdoor market yesterday) and ice cream, we only had one course, per Hala. Naturally that course filled my plate with mounds of delicious yellow mashed potatoes and fried cutlet with onions and mushrooms, all served up by Hala. I got to spoon my own cucumbers in cream. I will definitely not need to eat again tonight. My friend Iza arrives from Krakow shortly. Michal will take me to town today and pick me up tomorrow when she leaves.

5 June, Cermin

Iza’s arrived on time Saturday at the stop not so far from the hotel. We just had to schlep her small suitcase through the Old Town Square, an interesting feat on all those cobblestones Then off for two days of walking. Iza hadn’t been in Sandomierz since her school days. Yesterday we walked through the newly completed park below the hotel, then up hill and around to the New Town where I used to live and back down the main streets to the Old Town. Today after a leisurely breakfast and much checking to ensure the bus we thought would take her to Krakow was actually going to operate, we visited the castle and basilica. Iza climbed Brama Opatowska (the old tower gate on the Opatow side of the town) and toured the underground. The latter is unique to Sandomierz, a labyrinth of corridors and rooms built in the 13th Century as protection during three Tartar invasions. In anticipation of the Tartars’ arrival, the townspeople would close up house and shop and move into the underground where they lived and did business until the danger passed. The Tartars did significant damage to the town itself, which is one of Poland’s oldest and most historically signifiant sites. The underground had been a story for many years, then was found by accident when a street or something caved in the ‘50s or ‘60s. It’s been turned into a popular tourist attraction, complete with costumed staff.

Michal met Iza and me at the bus station where the bus arrived on time. We were told it would be a big bus, not a mini bus, because lots of students would be returning to the universities in Krakow. And it was. However, a horde of college-aged males pushed their way to the front of the line despite having just arrived. A Polish woman who was seeing her college-aged daughter off commented that they were “niekulturny” (uncivilized), and I agreed (in Polish) and got a sharp look from one of them.

While I was waiting for Iza on Saturday, I walked up to the square and found some teenaged boys break-dancing. I thought that had gone out of style many years ago but apparently not. They were very acrobatic, as you can see from this fellow.


Break-dancers in Sandomierz Rynek

7 June 2011, Warsaw

Well, no doubt about it -- summer is here. I think spring was a day or maybe two in length sometime in May. Yesterday it felt like August in Southern Illinois -- 90F and about 110 percent humidity in the shade. We had a bit of thunder and some rain late in the day but not enough rain to make much difference to the dryness. And per Hala, no rain in the village which desperately needs some if crops are to develop.

Because I’ve spent so much time sitting in transit (three hours from Sandomierz yesterday) and will again (overnight to Prague tonight), I have been walking everywhere despite the heat. I figure I may have walked off one scoop of the coconut and chocolate ice cream I treated myself to on the way back to the apartment yesterday.

I had lunch today with Dorota and Malgoscia, two of my Peace Corps language teachers who opened a school to teach Polish to foreigners. We marveled at the passage of time -- IKO, their school, is 17 years old, and we’re known each other 20 years, a lifetime! I remember the birth of Malgoscia’s older daughter who now has a driver’s license and younger sister. We gave Malgoscia a baby shower, probably the first such event in Polish history.

Malgoscia was in charge of PCV language training for several years, learning how to teach adults a foreign language from Michael, an expat who helped set up the language training program. (There wasn’t, and still may not be, a pedagogy for teaching Polish to adults.) Malgoscia learned quickly, trained her teachers well and was a gifted teacher herself. She also had an entrepreneurial side and saw an opportunity in the marketplace and in Dorota. Together they ventured forth into, for them, the unknown world of business ownership. But the PC business volunteers and a few other American expats in Warsaw have been available to help along the way.

Like all small businesses, they are struggling in this depressed economy made worse for them by EU grants (not loans) that favor start-ups. A number of “schools” purporting to do what theirs does have opened with that free EU money for a year or two and a non-government organization financed by the ministry in charge of competition (!) offers classes at no cost. We talked about some marketing ideas, including promoting their successes. For example, foreigners heading banks in Poland need to pass some type of exam in Polish, and every one trained by IKO has passed the exam. We talked about social media, and I dissuaded them of their idea that because I’m an American, I understand and use those. Not. I have a Facebook page with minimal info because so many people I know “friended” me; I don’t have a Twitter account because I don’t see the need to announce where I am at every moment of the day, disclose intimate details of my life or share my sometimes half-baked opinions. And this blog is written for family and friends, not the larger blogosphere.

Some of you may recall me writing about Dorota in times past. I feel as if I’ve watched her grow up ... she wasn’t long out of college and spoke minimal English when she taught our “survival Polish” class in the winter of 1991. Now she’s a successful entrepreneur, mother of Franiu and partner to Jacek, and good friend.

The idea behind Peace Corps language class is to help PCVs navigate daily living in their new countries, not to ensure we speak flawless Polish, Spanish, French, Swahili, Tagalog. In our case that meant words, phrases, sentences to use at the “Ruch” (kiosk), in the “sklepy” (shops) and “Poczta” (post office), on the “ulicy” (streets, itd. (etc.). My still-limited skills are the fault of my own laziness, not for want of good teachers. As in every endeavor, there is at least one person who needs the details, who questions the minutia. To which Dorota would reply, “Nie zapytaj dlaczego. Zrob.” (Don’t ask why. Do.)

16 June, Czermin

Trite but true that time flies when you’re having fun. (A variation on that, “Fun Flies When You’re Doing Time,” is the title of a book by my “PC Bestest Friend” Susan about her (and our) adventures as PCVs in Poland. For a copy, contact Susan at susansnelson@aol.com and enjoy!)

Prague was wonderful, as beautiful and charming as I remember. It’s been 15 years since my last visit there; I took my son during the time he was with me over here.

The overnight train from Warsaw started off with cars for Vienna and Budapest that had to be disconnected somewhere along the way making for a very noisy night. Not much sleep. Plus I shared the second class sleeping compartment with a Polish woman who was quite nice but periodically snored loudly. I easily forgave that in the morning when she got coffee for the two of us from the conductor.

I actually had a fairly decent sense of direction on arrival, found the taxi stand and got to the hotel on a narrow cobblestoned side street in Mala Strana, across the Charles River from the Old Town. Although it was only about 9 am, the hotel let me check in. I dumped my bags and went off for a walk, more coffee and something to eat. Armed with a map the hotel clerk provided, I crossed the Charles Bridge and took a very long way around to the main square, stopping for a coffee-and-cold-cuts breakfast. Essentially I had gone right when I should’ve gone left at some point, but no matter. Wandering through Prague’s Old Town is one of the city’s main delights.

Midday as I returned to the hotel, it started to rain ... thankfully a light rain, but I was still very damp on my return. I put my clothes on a chair to dry, unpacked my bags and took a nap until my friend Iva arrived. Iva was the wine specialist on the project I managed in Macedonia and eventually became my deputy chief of party, taking over the close out after I left. We’ve remained friends since. One of the benefits of all this overseas work is a wonderful cadre of friends in each location.

Iva had flown from Skopje, then taken public transport from the airport. We got her settled and exchanged bottles of wine. I had asked for Macedonian wine to take to a wine bar owner in Minneapolis and had brought her our friend John’s Vranec, a Macedonian variety he’s now growing and bottling in the Sierra wine region of CA. Off we went to the Old Town, a more direct route, with a stopover for coffee and cash.


Iva reads about Prague while we wait for our coffee.

We spent four days (Wednesday through Sunday last week) exploring Prague primarily on foot. I think we only took a tram once other than when we departed for home. Crossing the Charles Bridge, taking photos anywhere and navigating the narrow streets were regular challenges as everywhere was overrun with tourists -- student groups of all ages and adults from all over the world. Prague tourism definitely didn’t seem to be down.

We hiked up to and all around Castle Hill (Hradcany), watched the Changing of the Guard at Prague Castle and went into St. Vitus Cathedral.


Castle Hill from the Charles Bridge


Entrance to Prague Castle, less gild than Versailles but equally massive


Entrance to St. Vitus Cathedral

Walking back from Castle Hill, we visited the gardens of Wallenstein Palace with its unique wall of fake stone that includes animal and human shapes. The palace is massive, built in the 17th Century to rival Prague Castle. It currently houses the Czech Senate.


Portion of fake stone wall in Wallenstein Garden

With hundreds of others, we watched the hourly routine of the famous astronomical clock of the old city hall in the old square. Another day Iva climbed the tower for a magnificent view. Not knowing there was an elevator, I sat near the Jan Hus statue in the square to wait for her and got a suntan. (I didn’t think my knees would make the downward climb.) Another day we arrived in the square to find an Avon Breast Cancer Walk getting under way. If I’d known, I might have signed up for the event.


Hundreds of Czech women took part in Avon Walk

Everywhere we went, we seemed to run into Franz Kafka.


One of several Kafka-themed cafes


Franz Kafka statue by Spanish Synagogue

Deciding to take a new route home from our end of the Charles Bridge, we discovered (1) a shorter, easier-on-the-legs-than-crowded-cobblestone-streets route and (2) the Kampa Museum of modern sculptures which was showing the works of Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Kupka. As with other museums, we didn’t go inside -- the weather was too nice for that. But we did see some of the sculptures in a courtyard and outside.


One of three cast bronze babies outside Kampa Museum

With the exception of one restaurant, the food and service we experienced were excellent. The less-than-wonderful meal was at a riverside restaurant that I remembered from my Peace Corps days. You enter by walking downward through a barely shoulder-wide stone staircase, which is why I remember it so well. The scenery was lovely, the food was okay at best and the waiter was beyond indifferent. To compensate, we followed the sound of karaoke music under the bridge to another restaurant where, despite saying all we wanted was a glass of wine, we were greeted warmly, served promptly and not forgotten. The music continued in a separate area of the restaurant that we suspected was reserved for tour groups. We made a dinner reservation for our last night, and the food, wine, service, ambiance were excellent. I ordered salmon, continuing my good luck from France with this meal.

Speaking of food, we happened on a restaurant not far from our end of the Charles Bridge. It was called Leone & Anna. The outside terrace where we sat was in an wide passage between two buildings. The charming waiter who spoke English and good food saw us return two more times, including a lunch of the best hamburger I’ve had overseas. Another day we had lunch at a pricey place on the Fifth Avenue of Prague. We continued to sit, chat, people watch well beyond the end of our meal, then it started to rain and we stayed even longer. And no one hovered or brought the check to hint we should leave. So we each ordered a glass of wine and sat out the rain. Perhaps the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had but well worth it.


Me “sampling” the art outside a gallery across from our hotel

Sunday morning saw Iva off for Skopje via tram, bus and airplane while I slept in, then did a bit more wandering, eating and shopping before heading for the train station. An equally noisy, mostly sleepless night back to Warsaw where I found a new addition to the Hala Glowna (Main Hall). The main railway station is being renovated in advance of the 2012 World Cup to be played in Poland. Many of us, expats and Poles alike, doubt the ability of any contractor to remove the decades old stench of urine from the place ... but they are trying. And it does look nicer now.


Old signs make new sculpture at Warszawa Centralna

17 June, Sandomierz

As I drove into town with Hala this morning, she told me about the eight new chicks that her mother had ... and I was going to report on that as the day’s big news. Later. Bigger news first. I’m in the lobby of Hotel Basztowy, and I just saw Ojciec Mateusz (Father Matthew) in the flesh! He walked down the steps, dropped off his room key and exited while I tried not to stare or pant. He was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, not a cassock as he appears on the small screen but I recognized him immediately.

For those of you who have forgotten or haven’t been reading me long enough, “Ojciec Mateusz” is the most popular television series in Poland, and it takes place and is partially filmed in Sandomierz. Father Matthew is a crime-solving priest who easily rides an old-fashioned bicycle over our hilly cobblestone streets. Many of the cast and crew stay at Hotel Basztowy, and the lead actor has declared in several interviews that he not only loves the city but this hotel. He stays in the same room each time, one that overlooks a park. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone but couldn’t get very close.


Ojciec Mateusz and his police colleague

Okay, enough slobbering over handsome unattainable men. Back to the chicks. When I returned from France, Michal’s brother and wife were visiting from Switzerland. At Hala’s mother’s request they had brought 20 eggs from a variety of chicken not available in Poland. These chickens apparently grow to 5 kilos (about 12 pounds) or more and make great rich broth from just one-quarter of a chicken.

As the farm has no chickens right now, only turkeys that her mother is also raising, Hala borrowed a hen from a neighbor. And the rent-a-hen has been sitting on the eggs. Apparently it is possible to hatch chicks from these eggs even after such a long time because Hala’s mother now has eight new chicks with hopes of a few more. (Some of the original 20 eggs have been broken.) Ideally one of the chicks will be a rooster so that additional eggs can be laid and hatched without benefit of a trip from Switzerland. Hala informed me that while a hen can lay eggs without a rooster, she will lay more with one. No comment.

In other news, I got a chuckle this morning over Michal scolding (loudly, as always) Hala’s mother for her lack of care for a stray cat that has adopted them. Can’t recall if I told you about the cat before so bear with me or skip this paragraph. I’ve named him “Lucky” because he was lucky to land at this farm. (Not an original idea, one gadged from my brother who suggested the same moniker for his wife’s cat.) Lucky is such a dark brown that he looks black. He isn’t allowed in the house, but the family feeds him, and Michal makes sure he has fresh water and clean dishes. His mother-in-law is less scrupulous, hence the scolding. Oh, and Michal bought Lucky a new dish while in Warsaw this week and often sits and pets him. Although an outdoor car, he is lucky.

19 June, Czermin

“Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” So sang the Carpenters back in my day ... but actually neither has ever particularly bothered me. When you’re single, it’s Sunday that can get you down. Sunday is traditionally family day, and yours exists no more. It’s how the Brunch Bunch was started, why I became such a faithful Bruncher for so many years. My late friend Suzanne and her friend Sunny, whom I never met, started asking other single friends to brunch after they were divorced. My friend Terry invited me when we were going through our divorces, then she never attended again. She had grown up with our late friend John who had been brunching for some time. Later I invited Marilou who invited ... You get the picture. Over the years lot of people have come and gone, some to marriage (Brunchers were usually single), some to other interests (I have been gone too much to be a regular), too many to death. I have carried the concept with me overseas and established brunch groups in three countries because Sundays are even harder when you’re an expat alone overseas.

Today, at last, it is raining but it is a Sunday. The rain started last night not long after we came into the house after our ognisko (bonfire). And it apparently continued through the night; it was raining when I awoke. Today’s gray skies signal, we hope, more rain as the garden and crops are in desperate need. So strange that last year we had flooding of historic proportions. Global climate change indeed.

Of course a rainy Sunday provides a great excuse for a lazy day at the laptop adding to my writing, listening to music and playing solitaire on my iPhone (thanks to Matt who helped Alfreda and I download the app while we were in Dordogne) and lounging on the bed reading the historical novel I bought in Prague. Don’t get excited; it’s in English. The bookshop, Shakespeare and Sons, located below the Charles Bridge in Mala Strana seems to have been modeled after the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore in Paris. I spent yesterday afternoon ironing, sorting and packing to leave here on Tuesday morning for Warsaw.

We roasted kielbasa to be eaten with sharp mustard and dense Polish bread, fresh tomatoes and onions, strong Polish beer (Hala and Michal), bubbly water (me) and Michal’s homemade version of bourbon, Aqua Vitae (Michal and me, and later Hala’s sister who dropped by). Michal gives me a hard time because I don’t drink much or often. I’ve never acquired a taste for beer of any kind, a huge disappointment to my dad and many friends. But since my life has been peopled with alcoholics, including some family members, I’ve always been cautious, rarely over-indulging. Some of you have been present during those times when I did -- after Fred’s birthday party during college (mid 60s), I swore off gimlets for life, then lapsed on an early ‘80s trip to my sister’s in Denver where her late husband and I finished several pitchers of kamakazis (basically gimlet shots), forgetting what I learned at their wedding. At a mile high, the body reacts to booze more sneakily. And I broke one of my mother’s cardinal rules (don’t mix your drinks) on my first New Year’s Eve in Poland as a Peace Corps volunteer in training. The alcohol selection then ran to Russian champagne and vodka, both cheap. My PC Bestest Friend Susan and I settled on Russian champagne ... but I couldn’t resist, and I had a few of the vodka-laced Jello shots made by the “youngsters” in the group. Not a good combination, even when you aren’t driving.

So Michal was surprised when I agreed to a shot of his bourbon, Aqua Vitae, very potent but tasting unlike any bourbon or sour mash whiskey I’ve ever had ... and had several more. I called it quits after #6. I had eaten two kielbasas with bread etc. and took a long swig of water after each shot. I only had a very mild buzz and awoke with no hangover. Hurray. Truth be told, it’s the hangovers that really keep me from overindulging alcohol-wise. I hate losing a whole day to that misery when I could be enjoying myself!

21 June, Summer Solstice, Warsaw

Summer has begun with a big bang. My dear friend from college Marcia underwent a lung transplant today. Word on her CarePages is that she’s resting well in the ICU. Thank God, the doctors, the donor and his/her family.

A few weeks ago when I thought I might organize a mini-reunion in Chicago of our foursome of friends from mid-60s Lambda chapter of Kappa Delta, I learned that Marcia was atop the transplant list, and so on call. She had some kind of lung condition that I never totally understood beyond that it would only get worse and kill her without a new lung. Breathing was undoubtedly made more difficult since she lives in Snowmass, Colorado, several miles above sea level where the air is thinner.

23 June, Warsaw

Updates on Marcia’s CarePages indicate she’s continuing to do well, off the ventilator, breathing on her own, started on physical therapy, eating the requisite hospital Jello and smiling for the camera. Hurray.

Tonight Marta, Hala and Michal’s daughter with whom I usually stay when I’m in Warsaw, went to hear Cassandra Wilson at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days. Every year I miss the jazz festival, so when I saw this concert, I asked Marta to get us tickets. My ‘thank you’ to her for her continued generous hospitality. The opening act was an Israeli trio, led by Avishai Cohen on bass accompanied by piano and drums. An interesting set with some music that I really enjoyed but Cohen’s strange head movements both while he played and as the others were featured were distracting. Cassandra Wilson was disappointing because she sang so little, letting her five-piece band take center stage most of the set. Actually that wasn’t bad ... they were incredibly good. I could’ve listened to them all night.

I came back to finish packing while Marta scraped a sticker from her car window. We had inadvertently parked in a taxis-only area on a main street. Not only did we not see the sign, but regular cars were parked in the entire area when we drove in. While I can appreciate, I guess, the cabbies need to make a statement about their reserved spaces, I cannot appreciate the sticker which featured a caricature of a penis. What that has to do with parking is beyond me.

When I went on line to check in, I discovered that KLM now has a one-checked-bag rule. While it looked like I could check two since I have a “Silver Medallion” status with Delta, I decided not to take any chances. I repacked everything, leaving one coat for Marta to take with her to the farm sometime. Per her scale, I am well within the KLM limits. I decided to weigh myself, and I’m also well within the limits -- only a pound heavier than when I left Minneapolis. Not bad for two weeks in the land of pork and potatoes and the world’s best bread.

26 June, Minneapolis MN USA, home again, home again ...

Well, I’m home. The trip back was the usual nightmare. I awoke at 4 am worrying about the baggage, should I repack, should I leave things with Marta, etc. etc., and I couldn’t fall back to sleep Was at the airport an hour before the baggage check-in folks arrived, and got through that with no problem. Flight was half an hour late leaving since it arrived late, but I had plenty of time for the transfer. And for a change didn’t have to stand in a long security line to board for MSP. Traffic is definitely down. Delta flew a 767 that was almost full but holds nowhere near the number of the usual Airbus. I sat behind three teenaged boys who thought the world not only revolved around them but wanted to hear every word of their scintillating conversations ... and a baby who cried off and on all night. I didn’t even get in a doze.

My wonderful sister arrived to pick me up just as I exited the terminal, and my wonderful nephew (with a little help from the cleaning lady) had the apartment in great shape. He’d put the bed linens in the washing machine, ready for me to dry before remaking the bed. When I did that, I found a pair of pink fluffy footies, the kind women wear to bed when their feet are cold, on the floor on the far side of the bed. Hmmmm. I laid them with the rest of his gear that was by the front door (he had to go to work and would return to pick it up afterwards) and didn’t say a word when he came by later. Seems he has a girlfriend.

This weekend Barbara, Christopher and I, with some help today from my friends Doug and Larry, helped Tomery move out of her to a rented room. She’s paring back expenses for six months to give herself time to decide what she wants to do next, which is probably move to Austin, Texas. Unfortunately she was about as unorganized about this move as she could be ... read: nothing packed. None of us is very happy.

30 June, Minneapolis

As the month ends, I’m delighted to say that my friend Marcia continues to improve and is no longer in the hospital. The doctors wanted her out quickly because of the potential for a hospital-acquired infection.

My niece Tomery will finally stay at her new abode. She’s been staying with me since she worked until 10 pm most nights and hasn’t had time to unpack. The house where she’s rented the room has a swimming pool and hot tub in the back yard ... I may have to find my way over there.

And my sister bought a new car today. She’s been wanting a Mini Cooper for ages and found a used one at a used car dealer that has an excellent reputation. We test drove the other day, and we picked it up tonight after she finished work.


My sister Barbara and her Mini

As for me, I’m settling back into life in Minneapolis. Have arranged my next trips, to Chicago and Michigan in mid-July for sure, perhaps North Dakota with niece Dyana to see her mother, grandmothers et al., and a week “up north at the lake” with my friend Jean from San Francisco.

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