Monday, May 16, 2011

Getting Caught Up

I haven't updated this blog in about a year, so it goes without saying that there's a lot to catch up on.  In fact, that's the primary reason I haven't updated it...too much pressure to write down archival items, to go back and search my sieve-like memory in order to document everything that has happened in fascinating detail.  And wow, that's just too damn much pressure.  So, sorry 'bout it, but we're just going to have to do a minimal round-up and move on!

Last May, I spent an amazing weekend in Krakow with Magda and Kama.  I also spend about a third of my monthly paycheck, mostly on great food and about 30 mixed cocktails.  Particularly the Pink Mohito at Shanti, the best Thai restaurant in Poland.  Sitting in the rynek listening to drunk Scottish women hit on every man going by was also another highlight.  Ah, youth.  And by youth, I mean they were in their 40s.

In mid-May, I returned home for about two weeks in order to witness my cousin Catherine walk down the aisle.  It was lovely seeing all of my family together (and my friends-including Adam and Jennifer-whom I hadn't seen in ages!), and the party was pretty damn kickass.  I also had the chance to enjoy some of my favorite foods that I couldn't get in Poland, such as bagels, Maid-Rites, and reuban sandwiches.  Mmmmm...

The school year ended in June, which didn't come soon enough, frankly.  I think everyone was sick of school at that point.  Plus, the weather started getting insanely hot and humid.  I taught an independant (read: under the table) class at a local business throughout the summer, and walking home every day pretty much rendered me a moving puddle.  It was not pretty.  However, on the recommendation of one of those students, I found a pierogi shop right near my apartment that made the lightest and most delicious pierogi that you took home to cook.  I still think of them even now.  I also think about the raspberries, cherries, and strawberries that I got all summer. It was a red-smeared berry fest at my place for at least two months.  I even made my first-ever batch of sour cherry preserves.  Mixed into silky, thick Greek yogurt for breakfast, they were an enchantment.   Less enchanting was how hot it was in my apartment.  I spent large parts of every day simply sitting on my couch/bed in front of my exhausted fan, reading the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" series feverishly and spooning marscapone (with a touch of brown sugar & vanilla) and berries into my face.  It wasn't pretty, but it also wasn't work.  I was happy.

During the summer, Georgina's cat had kittens, and I made the big decision to adopt one.  She was ready to come home the week of my birthday, and she made a most excellent present to myself.  Ava.  Oh, she is lovely (and sleeping soundly on top of my wardrobe as I write this).  Supremely cuddly and yet a little vicious with her claws...just like her mother.

Right before my birthday, in mid-August, my boss called me into her office to discuss something important.  I was nervous, envisioning all manner of horrible transgressions I may have unwittingly committed.  But, as it turned out, she merely wanted to offer me a promotion!  To be the head teacher at the branch of our school in Wroclaw.  Wow.  I was shocked and flattered.  Terrified to uproot myself from my comfort zone in Gliwice, but eager to see what might happen for me in the big city.  Well, sort of big city.  Average city, really.  But, bigger than Des Moines and so beautiful, with many cultural offerings and decent shopping.  I was in.  They also asked Magda if she wanted to move there, too.  The whole staff had basically quit.  No comment on that, but it basically gave me the chance to start from scratch, and that was appealing.  Another great thing is that they offered a position there to my friend Daniel, with whom I had worked in Korea.  It all happened *very* quickly, but it was really exciting.  One day Magda and I went to Wroclaw to have a look around and see if we could live here, and the next we were sitting on a train with suitcases and a wailing cat.  Once we got here, we had to spend two weeks at the school's tiny studio apartment, waiting for the one we eventually found to be ready.  (That's a whole other story I can't get into, but suffice to say, we found an amazing apartment by shear luck and I am grateful every day.)  Living there was a real test, but it was over soon enough, and we finally moved into our 150 year old apartment building overlooking the moat.  Right in the city center, near public transport, and lovely. The inside anyway.  The entry way and stairwell look and smell like they belong in a well-graffitied bomb shelter.  Speaking of stairs, we're on the top floor, so there are 72 of them to climb every day.  But no matter.

The school year started, with new teachers to get to know.  It was not as social of an atmosphere as we were used to from Gliwice.  On the one hand, it's sad not to go out as much with your colleagues, but on the other hand, I'm saving a lot of money from decreased consumption of beer.  The school itself is in the center of town, so it's also a vintage building.  Creaky wooden floors, high ceilings, crown molding details.  Lots of gorgeous light, but now that summer is coming around, I can see where all that light is going to turn the school into a vintage oven.  The students are nice, but not quite as eager to get to know the teachers as the ones in Gliwice.  This is possibly owing to the fact that there are more than 3 things to do of an evening in Wroclaw.  At any rate, we all settled in and got to the business of another school year.

In October, we went back to Gliwice for Halloween.  It was so much fun, and it truly felt like going home.  Seeing everyone again made me want to cry with happiness!  Introducing Daniel to all my friends there was fun, and he got along great with them.  The pictures from that weekend were a riot and will definitely not be published here!  *sigh*  That was such a wonderful weekend...

In November, I hosted another massive Thanksgiving party.  It was a lot of work, as usual, but since it's my favorite holiday, I wasn't complaining.  We had about 25 people for dinner, and everyone brought something to share.  So, as you can imagine, there was a metric shit-ton of food on offer.  We put everything on the terrace for storage and two days later it snowed enough to bury it all.  And then proceeded to stay so cold that it didn't melt for over a month.  Needless to say, we had a turkey carcass living on our terrace for a good part of the winter.

In December, I went home for three weeks to spend the holidays with my family.  It was great being back, as usual, even though I didn't have a car to drive the whole first week I was there.  Three weeks was a good duration.  I had enough time to see everyone, and I only started going a little crazy.

After Christmas, nothing particularly interesting happened other than that my job started getting very stressful due to the owner of my school being extraordinarily inconsiderate in not hiring a sorely-needed additional teacher.  Consequently, we were all over-worked and pissy about it.  It was not a fun time.

Oh, one great thing that happened during that time was that I bought a car.  On Valentine's Day.  A 20 year old Mercedes, but an automatic, which was the most important feature.  It's in great shape, so I'm really hoping it'll last at least until I decide to move on to another continent.

For Easter, we stayed home this year (instead of going to the mountains like last year) and made a nice dinner for each other.  I cooked a traditional Easter ham and a coconut cake.  Magda made potatoes and carrots, and Daniel made curry and a roasted chicken.  It was tasty and a lot less annoying than spending 7 hours on public transport to get to a mountain town where all the restaurants were closed for the weekend.

May 1st weekend, a year after that expensive trip to Krakow, my friend Katie came back for another visit!  We decided to spend the first weekend of her trip in Prague.  Prague is my favorite city in the world, so it was like a homecoming for me.  For the others, it was an eye-opening experience that showcased how wonderful Europe can be.  Personally, I consider Wroclaw to be like a smaller Prague, at least in terms of architecture.  Kraków is really more like Prague in terms of atmosphere and diversity.  So for me, walking around Wroclaw makes me happy and grateful to live in a place that's so beautiful and yet not crammed with tourists like Prague. In fact, the tourist aspect made me really annoyed, but it was still lovely to be there with my friends.  Driving there was a little stressful for me, particularly the part where we got pulled over by the Czech police for not having put our road pass in the window.  Thankfully, I had all the necessary documents hiding in my purse, and they let us go.

The next weekend (last weekend, in fact), Katie and I took a day trip to Germany.  I drove again, and managed not to get too lost.  Katie was an excellent map reader for both trips, it must be said.  We went to the border town of Gorlitz, which was pretty and quiet and very orderly.  I began to see the appeal of living in Germany versus Poland.  Still, we had to spend Euros, so I was happy to cross the border back into Poland within short order!  The next day, Katie had to leave.  Since she apparently attracts travel drama (at least when attempting to leave Poland), there was naturally a bomb threat at the airport just as we arrived there.  Consequently, we got stopped in a massive traffic jam that left us parked in the middle of the street for at least 30 minutes while the building was inspected.  Thankfully, the airport here is even smaller than Des Moines', so it didn't take too long.  Even better, she didn't miss her flight and was soon on her way back home.

Now, there we are.  All caught up!

Summer is fast approaching and I'm weighing my options.  Stay here for another year and the possibility of being shit on again by my boss, or try to move to Italy to finally finish my Italian citizenship application?  I love this city, I love being here with my friends, I love this apartment, plus I totally heart inertia and not having to pack up all my shit and start over somewhere brand new.  At least for right now.  I do have notoriously itchy feet...but I might be able to powder them and stay here for now.  Being settled is a delightful feeling, I must say.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year's Festivities

"Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve.  Middle age is when you're forced to."
Bill Vaughn

It has been quite some time since I felt the need to present myself at an obnoxiously busy club on New Year’s Eve, ready to get jostled by a pack of strangers and drink one glass of free “champagne” at midnight of a quality that could be used to clean floors if strictly necessary.  No, those days are long past and good riddance.  There is no joy in being crushed on a dance floor, sweaty and desperate to sit down thanks to your painfully sexy new shoes.  New Year’s Eve is almost always more hassle than it is worth.  Still, there is the pressure.  The pressure to have plans, to be going somewhere nouveau and cool, to be doing something more exciting than sitting at home in front of the television with a bag of chips, some knockoff champagne, and your mother. 

This past New Year’s, I managed to acquire some respectably exciting plans that didn’t make me want to curl up in a ball at the very idea of them.  Jazz Club Hipnoza  in nearby Katowice was having a special evening, complete with jazz performances, buffet, and requisite glass of champagne.  Matt, a friend and fellow teacher, plus his girlfriend (Kasia), her friends, Magda and I all planned to go.  Katowice isn’t far from Gliwice, so Kasia’s dad offered to drive us there, and we decided to get a taxi for the trip back, thereby eliminating the issue of parking/walking that so often plagues nights on the town. 

At Matt's house for pre-party

We were told that we should dress in a casually nice style, so I chose to wear my favorite gray wrap-around sweater with black pants.  Unfortunately, upon arrival, it was apparent that most women had received a “Skimpy Black Dress” memo that had clearly passed me by.  Having no skimpy black dress, or the figure to wear one, perhaps it was for the best.  And anyway, there’s no use trying to look nice around Polish women dressed to the nines; it will inevitably end in failure and humiliation for a plump American girl such as myself.  They are usually tall and lanky, with supermodel bodies.  I have an hourglass shape, which is really more of an hour and a half, to be honest.  In a room full of anorexic giraffe women, there’s no point in putting on airs.


The jazz, itself, wasn’t entirely bad.  It started off vintage and hoppin', but soon segued into modern jazz, which does nothing to inspire me and mostly sounds like elevator music.  Eventually, we retreated from the main room to one down the hallway, which was filled with tables and a buffet.  The food on offer was a tasty assortment of salads and pasta dishes, so we hung out in there for quite a long time.  As the night wore on, we decided to get some dancing in, so we headed back to the main room once the music changed into DJ selections.  They played a crazy mix of hipster favorites, from 60s to disco to punk and back again.

Hipster really was the word of the night.  Every person within 5 miles wearing black-rimmed glasses was present, including me.  The purposely-ironic outfits, the smattering of English and other languages being spoken throughout the crowd…clearly, we were in a happening and painfully-hip venue.  At one point, a man in the crowd pulled out a trumpet and started playing along with the music.  Nice.

At midnight, we drank our disgusting-but-free “champagne”, and toasted the New Year with glee.  Then, casually, as though I could barely be bothered to care, I adjusted my black-rimmed glasses and got back to the very serious business of dancing the night away.

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!