Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yuletide Musings

"Christmas - that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance.  It may weave a spell of nostalgia.  Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance - a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved."
Augusta E. Rundel

This past Christmas was only my second one away from home, and really only the second Christmas which was substantially different from those of my youth.  It is something truly special to have had more or less the exact same holiday experience for 30 years.  For some, this might be stifling, but I always took comfort in the sameness.  It was always so reassuring to know that my family's traditions were intact.  I know that some people choose to avoid family madness around the holidays, but I embrace it.  That I have consciously chosen not to return home these past two years has made me deeply sad, and were choices mostly born out of inadequate funds rather than desire to strike a purposely different path from my most cherished loved ones.  Those who are able to celebrate with loving families, and yet choose not to...I frankly don't understand that decision.  For one so far away from her family, and without means to return home, it just seems so wasteful.  Of time, of history, of love, of tradition.  Of really good food, at the very least!

My Christmas this year was spent with a fellow teacher, Magda, and her family at their lovely home in the Polish countryside.  They were incredibly gracious and made my Christmas a memorable and happy experience.  But before we could get to the warmth and comfort of their homestead, we first had to endure 5 hours of wretched Polish public transportation.  

As ever in Poland, all bus journeys are a torture, and this was no exception.  It started with a steady drizzle and having to elbow our way ahead of a pack of snarling grandmas.  I, being a semi-pro at elbowing old ladies, quickly got to the front of the line, acquired a ticket from the driver, and went to claim two seats near the front of the bus.  Oh, what a mistake!  No sooner were Magda and I ensconced in our row (across the aisle from one another, with our voluminous bags occupying the seats next to each of us) but two old women started shouting at us, waving fingers in our faces and chastising us loudly.  Magda, who speaks Polish, told me that these women apparently had reservations for the very seats I had chosen (natch), and they were telling us to basically get the hell to the back of the bus where we belonged.  I was more than happy to move, but the bus was quite full at this point, including the aisle, with people trying to get on and get situated.  Unless we suddenly managed to sprout wings and fly over everyone's heads, we couldn't go more than one foot up the aisle towards the back.  This didn't stop the old women from pushing us and doing some more shouting.  Well, I never!  If I could have spoken Polish, I would have told them to go get fucked.  Magda, evermore polite than I, simply told them, "Sorry, but we can't move!" while they continued to harumph in our general direction.  Eventually, we got to the back of the bus and squeezed ourselves and our bags into two seats.  I have never been so happy to get off a bus in my life.

Once we were at Magda's house, things rapidly improved.  Her mother, Grace, was a thoroughly charming woman.  She was busy preparing food for the onslaught of the many meals to be had over the weekend.  There were piles of fresh meat, steaming pots of soup, and veggies to be chopped as far as the eye could see.  And the homemade currant wine!  Ooooh, that's a happy memory, and it quite inspired me to make some of my own during the next berry season.

Magda and I were put to work more or less immediately and quite happily.  Chop chop chop, into the night!  Magda's mom is also a whiz at preserving things, so we were able to feast on spiced pears and plums from the last harvest.  (They have a farm, with a proper root cellar that's filled with jars of delicious goodies and baskets of fresh eggs.)  Speaking of the root cellar, I could never go down the steps (backwards, please!) without feeling like I was going to tumble down or crack my head on the midget-low ceiling, but Magda's grandpa fairly bounded up and down them, despite having the use of only one arm.  A true wonder.

The first real night of cooking, we helped to make Greek Fish (which is white fish, covered in layers of sautéed veggies and then baked) and Polish-style cheesecake (which is softer and less dense than American-style).  We also knitted a bit with grandma and drank half a jug of the homemade wine.

For Christmas Eve, we enjoyed this delicious food, along with mushroom soup, carp (super-traditional Polish Christmas dish, either loved or loathed by the natives), something akin to a veggie-packed American potato salad, mushroom/cabbage pierogi, a cabbage/bean dish, and borscht with mushroom dumplings.  Wow, it was all so great!  I particularly loved the borscht, which I discovered I could eat by the gallon.

A new tradition for me was the breaking of bits of Eucharist Host with each other, and individually wishing each other good things for the new year.  Quite cool.  Also cool was when some random boys showed up at the front door, dressed in scary masks and odd outfits.  They were apparently telling some story, after which they sang a bit.  Polish Christmas carolers, evidently!  

After dinner, we naturally had to attend Midnight Mass.  I have never been in such a ridiculously frigid church.  I could see my breath.  Other than that, it wasn't too different from American Catholic Masses, although there were 19 alter boys.  Seriously.  And they were all wearing different styles of flowy, poofy capes/gowns.  I mean, with all the sex scandal problems the church has these days, putting an old man on an alter surrounded by 19 teenage boys in mini-dresses might not be the best image to send folks home with.  Just sayin'. 

Once done with church, I introduced Magda to my family's post-Midnight Mass custom of making breakfast.  I cooked up some shredded hashed browns, which had apparently never been seen in that house before, so even grandma and grandpa had to give them a try.  I think they'll be passing in future years, however.  Too bizarre for them. 

It's worth noting here that Magda's grandparents must have thought I was an incredibly odd person, based on my food preferences (if nothing else).  For starters, like most Americans, I prefer very cold beverages.  Why this should be a trait particular to Americans, I don't know.  Post-War electronic appliance boom?  Cold beverages a symbol of easily-attainable wealth?  It's an interesting subject, and it inevitably comes up every time I ask for ice outside of the States.  Europeans seem to be suspicious of cold drinks, and can usually only be pressed to provide a maximum of two ice cubes at a time, no matter how much you beg.  But Grace has a giant refrigerator with an *ice dispenser*, so if you think I was going to pass that opportunity up, then you are absolutely out of your mind.  The consequence, however, was that the grandparents looked at me like I was an alien with three heads most of the time.  Grace, having lived in South Africa and the US, was quite understanding.  She was also understanding of my desire to eat potatoes with the skins on, another moment that earned me stares of shock and horror from the grandparents and Grace's friend who had come 'round at feeding time.  In Poland, Grace kindly pointed out, the eating of potato skins is something mostly reserved for pigs.  Literally.  sigh

Christmas Day was spent with Magda's uncle and his family, and was mostly a feast combined with endurance drinking.  I held my own, proudly.  The English was flying fast and loose, since her uncle works for the UN.  It was quite amusing.  Some girl carolers also showed up, with much better costumes and song numbers than the boys, naturally.  The day passed with a bit of drama, a lot of booze, and much fun.

All too soon, it was time to leave behind the comforts of Grace's gorgeous house and generous hospitality (not to mention the enormous TV with English cable channels).  The bus ride home was uncomfortable, but uneventful.  After many days of pure Polish food, we decided to stop at the McDonald's in Katowice before getting on the train back to Gliwice.  I hadn't been to a Mickey D's since coming to Poland, but WOW.  It was the single nicest McDonald's I have ever seen in my life.  It was luxurious, and I know that sounds ludicrous, but it's true.  They had big, flat screen TVs hanging on the walls, dark wood, chrome, pay bathrooms.  And the food was the freshest I've ever enjoyed at a fast food joint.  Unbelievable.  (I've since been to the one in Gliwice, and it is nearly as nice.  Why don't these exist in America??)

I had an amazing Christmas, so thank you again to Magda and her family!  

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kraków, Redux

“You can always tell a Midwestern couple in Europe because they will be standing in the middle of a busy intersection looking at a wind-blown map and arguing over which way is west. European cities, with their wandering streets and undisciplined alleys, drive Midwesterners practically insane.”
Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson might be right about most Midwesterners, but not me.  I'm fairly certain that 90% of my mother's family would spend a maximum of 10 minutes squinting at a map, gesticulating broadly, and arguing passionately about which street leads to the Colosseum before eventually flagging the nearest taxi and calling it a day.  I, on the other hand, find the narrow, twisting streets of European cities to be mostly irresistible and charming.  Unless I'm lost and in a hurry, in which case I tend to curse them aloud in the manner of a crazy person.  Even then, though, it's hard to argue against the loveliness of cobblestones and the immense variety of life and shopping to be found in a European back alley.  Do you need a cobbler? A viola? Half of a calf's head?  It's right there, waiting to be "discovered" by you, the naïve tourist.  Never mind that the locals have been getting their calf heads there for 100 years.

Kraków is exactly the kind of European city in which I would dearly love to live.  It's fully stocked with wandering streets, Baroque architecture, parks peopled with wrought iron benches and lampposts along fine gravel pathways, and enough excellent restaurants to keep me occupied for a considerable length of time.  I envy the people who rush across the rynek every night on their way home, taking the rows of elegant buildings for granted as the facades soften to pastels in the twilight. 

While my friend Katie was visiting, we naturally decided to venture to the city.  I had been there once before, with Alice, but we hadn't done anything touristy whatsoever.  Being French, Alice had seen her share of castles and cathedrals, so we mainly focused on shopping and wandering aimlessly.  Katie, on the other hand, had never seen a castle in her life.  Our mission was clear: tourist day!

I have to say that my favorite part of bringing a newbie to Kraków is seeing their face light up when we walk into the square outside the train station.  It is so lovely, and it's not even the nicest one in town.  Katie and I lingered, taking photos amidst all the travelers and shoppers rushing around us.  She had been in Gliwice for some time at that point, but this was really the "Welcome to Europe" moment.

After capturing those first moments on film, we headed for the nearest tram stop, keen to get on to the Wawel Castle and accompanying cathedral.  I love the trams in Kraków.  Some clanky and ramshackle, others sleek and new.  And always going where you need them.  So, we hopped aboard and were quickly at the foot of the castle.

As castles go, it doesn't look too intimidating or grand.  It perches there casually, a bit top-heavy, on a hill overlooking the river.  It doesn't make your heart beat faster, doesn't make you want to invade it.  It just exists in a bit of a time warp, not quite removed from the city, but not exactly a part of it the way ancient Roman buildings are inseparable from everyday Roman life. 

We hiked up the path to the castle and took in the view from the ramparts.  I had heard rumors of dragons in the area, but sadly, none were out and about during our visit.  The castle grounds were lovely and the day was fresh, perfect for a stroll towards the cathedral, where we indulged in guided audio tour headsets to maximize our experience.  There was a lot of history and art in such an average-sized building, so our time and money were quite well spent.


After the cathedral, we attempted to get into the castle, but the guards turned us away for not having the appropriate tickets.  In the end, it turned out to be extortionately expensive, so I, being a vetern of castle-viewing, left Katie on her own to visit one of the set of rooms (all priced separately, absurdly enough!) and repaired to an outdoor cafe on the grounds where I could write postcards and admire the castle from afar.  For free.  I mailed the postcards from the little post office right there at the castle--and as an interesting side note--they took over two months to arrive in the States.  Not that I knew it at the time, of course!  Such are the benefits of updating this blog so far in arrears.

The rest of our afternoon was spent making our way to and around the rynek.  We stopped in the Hard Rock shop so that Katie could buy her boyfriend a t-shirt, and I wrangled a restaurant recommendation from the clerk.  He directed us to an Italian place where the food was gorgeous and so delicious.  The waiter was even happy to practice his English on us.  Thank you Hard Rock guy!  A bit of shopping at the mall near the train station followed, and so ended our lovely tourist day in the big city.

I'm really happy I got to introduce Katie to her first "real" European city, and I can't wait to see her again over here!  We're already planning a "Soup Tour, 2011".  I, for one, can't wait!