Sunday, September 30, 2007

Polish Shopping

Writing today's post.

Today was the first day in my whole entire trip that I felt a little lonely. And dare I say it, a little bored. I had thought that spending a quiet weekend in Krakow was just what I needed after a week of being sick. And while yesterday was nice to read books and relax, today I woke up and thought, "What am I going to do with myself?"

The best thing to do, I decided, was to go to the mall. (I am, after all, an original Jersey girl).

Galeria Krakowska is a giant monster of a shopping center with three levels and 270 stores. For easy access, the mall was built near the center of town, right next to the train station. However, this new development wasn't planned very well because there is only one road that leads to both the mall and the train station and so there are always massive traffic jams.

The mall is walking distance for me and it was a beautiful day so I didn't have to deal with the cars. Even though I don't have much money to spend or space in my luggage, I wanted see how the Polish mall looked (Bolek would be proud).

The mall was nice. They have everything there: Nike, Puma, Timberland, Sephoria, H&M, plus many other European clothing shops I have never heard of but sold nice stuff. My favorite being a teenage shop called "Troll" (for the namesake only). There was a drug store, a pet store, a shop that sold fruit. McDonald's, KFC and a deli with Polish Ham. I considered buying some clothes but I realized that I didn't need to. I could buy everything--or something like it--in America.

I ventured into Empik, which is their version of Barnes & Noble, and flipped through American Vanity Fair and Glamour, two magazines I never read, just to get some flavor of home. I opened the Polish version of Harry Potter and tried to read the first paragraph. I kind of knew what was going on, but it's probably because I read it before. Maybe one day I will be able to read it in Polish. The rest of the books in the kids section were Polish renditions of The Little Mermaid, My Little Pony, Bob the Builder. In a way I was happy that Polish people have the opportunity to enjoy American products and creations, but at the same time, I found it somewhat amiss. What about the Polish cartoons?

Walking through the mall, each store playing club music louder than the next, it all felt a little empty. I left the Polish mall wishing it were a little more Polish.

Galeria Krakowska.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Peace of mind.

Me with the head.

One of my favorite things about Krakow is the bugle call. Every hour, from the top of St. Mary's Church on the main square, a trumpet player toots a short, simple melody four times, facing north, east, south and west.

The song stops abruptly at the end. This dates back to the Tatar invasions. When the watchman on duty saw the Tatars coming, he played the song as a warning but was hit in the throat by arrow, thus why the song is cut short.

There is something about walking about Krakow and hearing the trumpet play. First, it lets me know that it's at the top of the hour. Second, it reminds me WOW! I am in Krakow. Sometimes I like to stop and watch the church when I hear the song. Depending on where you stand, you can see the mouth of the trumpet poking out of one of the little windows.

Someone should have sounded the bugle. The tourists have invaded.

It was an absolutely beautiful day, perhaps the most beautiful since I have been here. I had heard that the tourists are bad in the summer, that the square gets so filled that it's hard to walk through. Today it happened. There were swarms of people everywhere-the square, the stores, the restaurants. I walked into Cloth Hall, hoping to buy myself an amber ring, but when I saw the lines of people, the English-speaking customers, the utter chaos, I had to get out of there.

I knew it was bad when I could barely hear the bugle call over the street performer's music, the roar of the crowd, the fashion show taking place in the middle of the Rynek. I watched a group of boys in white t-shirts walking around with a promotional sign that said "Colgate." This is not the city that I love.

So I tried to get away from it all. I ducked into to the Czartoryski Museum, which is supposed to be one of the best in Krakow. To be honest, I found it very boring. I don't really like looking at old swords and armor and tapestries, and all the paintings were either very gloomy or very religious (sometimes both at the same time). The highlight was Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" painting.

Afterwards, I went to Camelot Café, my favorite place to eat in Krakow. This place has a nice outdoor seating area, but it's the inside I really like. With wooden floors and rustic furniture, it feels like you are at someone's home--and the food is good. I was excited to find that they were serving breakfast late, and I finally had the opportunity to eat some scrambled eggs (which I have been craving) along with a fresh baguette and coffee. I sat for a few hours, reading my book. It was a perfect afternoon. I had nowhere to go. And the tourists didn't bother me there.

St. Mary's Church, where the bugle plays. Where did all these people come from?

Just what I needed: Scrambled eggs, a good book and some peace and quiet.

Planning my trip itinerary and talking to Dan on Skype.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Don't ask me the time.

Back in Krakow. New session of classes. It's not the same without the Germans.

I have come down with a cold. It is no fun meeting new people when you are shoving a tissue into your nose every five minutes. The group of students for this session is much smaller than last time, and they are not a vocal group. I went to lunch with four German girls and found myself completely dominating the conversation. When I stopped speaking, no one would say anything. I feel that if me--shy, quiet Yvonne--is the loudmouth of the table, there has to be a problem. The excitement level of the group--on a scale from 1-10--should be at about an 8. (HELLO! We're in Krakow and the weather is gorgeous and we're learning Polish and we're meeting new people!). This lunch group, the energy level was at about a 3.

My class only has four students in it, including me. One of the other students is Jill, a Brit who was in my class last session and who likes to talk, and then two boys who don't say much. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, our teacher is Agnieszka, who couldn't be more pleased to be teaching us Polish. No matter what we say, she nods her head with enthusiasm. Her excitement level is about a 10. As Jill would say in her thick northern England accent, "She's just lovely, isn't she?"

And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have Marek. Marek speaks no English and gets mad when I ask Jill questions in English.

"Speak only in Polish!" he commands.

Dude, we're only in level 1B. How I am supposed to ask "What does this word mean in English?" in Polish and then have her answer me in Polish. It makes no sense.

I think he is anti-English. Today, he made us go around the room and say how many languages we spoke well. Half points were given if it was your native language. Tobias got 2 points, Jill got 1.5 points and Andreas got 1.5 points. Marek would only give me .5 points.

He then proudly smirked, "I know Polish, French and Italian. I have the most points! And I am the only one who speaks French!" Then he pumped his arm in the air as if to indicate "I'm the best!" I swear, you would think he was French himself. These are the kinds of games Marek plays.

And he plays by his own rules. Later, I got into an argument with him because he said that May 1 is Labor Day and no one has to work, and this is common for all countries.

"In America, this is not true," I said in Polish. "It's in September."

He refused to believe me (wouldn't I know better than him?), and made me bet a beer on it. He owes me a beer. But somehow I know he will win.

The past two days, we are learning how to say time in Polish, and it is impossible for me. First, the times are presented in military time. So say the time I am given to translate is 19:30. I am terrible at math in my head, so I have to concentrate really hard and think, What time does that mean? And so I calculate for moment and realize, okay, that means 7:30 and so the Polish word for 7 pops in my mind. But it is useless because in Polish time, you say 30 minutes to 8. So then I have to think about the word for 8 instead. And then I have to remember how to say the correct form of the words because it changes depending on the time.

As you can imagine, this takes an extremely long time for me, especially when I am put on the spot. Today Marek tortured me by making me say "from 11:35 to 13:40." After the ten minutes it took me to say that, he made me repeat it. The bastard.

This afternoon, I went with a small group to Wyspianski Museum. Stanislaw Wyspianski was kind of like the Leonardo da Vinci of Poland--a brilliant man from the 20th century who was a painter, stained-glass designer, playwright, architect, furniture and costume designer. I loved and was inspired by his pastel drawings; he had a way of capturing expressions on people's faces in a very realistic way. The museum had his sketches and ideas on different stain-glass projects, and we made our way to the Franciscan Church to see his designs first hand which were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

But what really startled me was when we walked past the gift shop, I saw one of his works of art that was not featured in the gallery. It was a sketch of a young girl with shoulder-length hair, hand over mouth. This very picture hung in my childhood bedroom. When I was little, I thought this was a drawing of me. A few years ago, my sister, Annette, and I talked about this picture and she said she had always thought it was a drawing of her.

And now I know who drew it. Roksanna, our guide, said this is a very famous drawing in Poland. They make many reprints. All those years, I thought it was only special to me.

God by Wyspianski.

Beautiful colors.

I thought that was me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wroclaw in Pictures.

Me with Ania and Bolek, in their living room.

Ania and Bolek's night stand: Pictures of family and the Polish pope.

Ania making borscht.

The apple juice project.

Making fresh apple sauce.

Wroclaw: The Youth Edition

My father's old apartment building.

On my second day in Wroclaw, Ciocia Janka took me to the city's most famous sight: the Raclawice Panorama. Basically, you go into this room that is in the shape of circle, and there is a giant continuous painting wrapped inside of it, depicting a historical battle between Russians and Polish peasants, led by the famous Polish general, Tadeusz Kasciuszko. You have to walk around a circular balcony to view it all, and it looks so realistic that it is almost three-dimensional.

Janka also took me to another famous sight in Wroclaw--well, at least, according to my family--the building where my father used to live. It was grey and square and run down, with no balcony to stand on or lines to get in, but I found it more interesting than a big famous painting.

From that point on, my tour guide changed hands and I was now being led around the city by the younger generation, starting with my forty-something cousin Jarek. There was something about Jarek that I liked right away. He didn't have a lot to say, sometimes he just wore a bemused smile, but to me, he looked like my family. He had the same chocolate brown eyes as my dad with small crinkles around them that gave me the impression he wore that smile often. His wife Jola and nearly 3-year-old daughter Justyna accompanied us on the tour.

Jarek drove really fast. After the light, he would switch the gears on his manual car quicker than I have ever seen anyone do so. From the driver's seat, he would point out the other relevant sights of town: "This is where your aunt lived." "This is where your father went to school." This is where Bolek worked." I would crane my neck to look at these places of history but they went by my window in a blur.

We went to this restaurant the couple frequented often. Inside looked both like an office building and a florist. The ceilings were syrofoamy and white, with bad lighting, and then there were plastic flowers everywhere. Jarek joked with the hostess and the waiter; they knew him. He told me that he and Jola had their wedding reception at this place. We all ordered salmon smothered in yellow cheese. It tasted better than it sounds.

Since it was a beautiful day, we went to a Japanese garden and walked around. Most of the flowers were no longer in bloom, so instead I observed 3-year-old Justyna. Like me, she was also learning how to speak Polish. She knew her stuff. If we were walking on sand, she would point to the ground and shrill, "SAND!" Her other strategy was to restate everything we had just said.

"Look at the fish!" her father would say as we walked by a pond.

"There is a fish!" she would answer.

I felt as if I followed her masterful language techniques, I could perhaps speak as well as she can.

Next, I was dropped into the hands of Dorota. My second cousin, Dorota is the daughter of Henryk, who is Ania and Bolek's son and Jarek's brother. She is one year younger than me, so Ania and Bolek thought we could enjoy Wroclaw at night together, as young people do. They encouraged it and fretted about it. I wasn't exactly sure why, but then I met her.

Oh Dorota. She is one year younger than me, but we couldn't be more different. She has yet to finish her studies at the university and is currently unemployed so she borrows money from her grandparents. But she isn't dumb. She speaks German fluently and is interested in politics, history and David Lynch films.

Dorota ended up taking me to a little pub that absolutely charmed me. I bought the first round (naturally) and we sat drinking wine, speaking Polish and listening to an energetic piano player. Here I learned not only that she is fast-talking and chain-smoking woman, she has an internet boyfriend and is an absolute Wroclaw loyalist: she can't imagine living anywhere else.

When we were finished with our drinks, she suggested we walk around the city, but we made a stop at a liquor store to get a beer.

It was an interesting scene. First of all, it was packed for a Sunday night. The tall, skeletal man behind the counter had dark circles under his eyes and had greasy hair that looked like he hadn't showered in a week. The place sold all kinds of alcohol but mostly rows and rows of single cans of beer which people were buying by the handful. Dorota bought a beer to walk around with, and I bought a candy bar. After I paid, a dirty man behind me, who I had seen collecting money at the front of the door, dropped a handful of change onto the counter to get one beer. It was one of the most depressing sights I have ever seen.

Dorota and I walked to the beautifully illuminated cathedral, she with beer in hand, me with my Kit Kat. I kind of felt like I was 18 years old again. Nowhere to go because we (well, one of us) had no money and drinking beer like we weren't supposed to. I didn't say anything because I really wanted an authentic experience, and here I was getting it. This was Dorota's Wroclaw: the city that she loved.

We spoke a lot in Polish. I told Dorota about my workaholic ways in New York. She said that she didn't like to work. I said that there has to be some kind of balance. We came back to the apartment around 10:30, and Dorota got yelled at for bringing me home so late. Oh, Dorota. Oh, old people.

The next day, I was back on the train back to Krakow. An entire city, three generations of family, I could barely wrap my mind around it. Arriving at Krakow Glowny, I felt a sense of relief. I was lighter, better. The drawer of my family past was open. I was letting people in.

Justyna: Masterful Polish linguist.

Jarek, Justyna and Jola at the Japanese garden.

Lively Dorota.

Bolek, Janka and Ania wave good-bye at the train station.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wroclaw: Family Style

My tour guides: Ciocia Janka and Wujek Bolek on the tram.

I had read the Wroclaw section in my Lonely Planet "Poland" guidebook, but as soon as I got there, I tossed it into my backpack and forgot about it. Here, I would be getting a tour of the city that wouldn't be explained in a book.

On the first day, Ciocia Janka, Wujek Bolek and I took the tram into the center of town. We started by walking around the famous Rynek filled with the old-style, rainbow of houses and the magnificent town hall plopped in the center. We ventured into the Museum Narodowe to look at Polish fine art, but we only glanced around one wing. Sometimes our tour ventured off course and we would end up walking through giant shopping malls.

"Poland has everything," Bolek bragged, pointing to the stores, "just like America."

We walked slowly, deliberately; I the only one with young legs. (Though Bolek would beg to differ. At one point of the weekend, he lifted up his pants to show me his still shapely 75-year-old calves.) Conversations were quaint. As we walked by a government building, Bolek explained to me that in these offices, no one wrote by hand anymore. All work was done on the computer. I wanted to hug him right there.

While we were in the second mall of the day, with Bolek pointing out the architecture, the three levels of stores, the elevator, the parking garage--I realized the malls weren't a detour. They were part of the tour. Bolek seemed genuinely proud how modern this mall was and for him, it was something to show off. Throughout my stay, I had noticed that much of Wroclaw is under construction, with thanks to new development and Poland's recent inclusion the European Union. This mall was just a small part of the new Poland. We didn't go into any stores, rather we just walked by them as if we were still in the museum, pausing to stop and look as if they were works of art to be admired themselves.

As for me, hanging out in Ania and Bolek's tiny apartment offered more of a glimpse of the way they live than walking through a mall. The apartment was of New York City proportions, very neat, styled in the typical Polish fashion--filled with dark brown furniture, frilly white curtains and not one, but two places to store bottles of vodka. Some items in the apartment utterly perplexed and amused me: the frayed Mickey Mouse sticker pasted on the hand towel hook, the collection of soda-themed shot glasses, the radio that looked like it came straight from 1980.

Ania is the type of woman who can't sit still for a second. Running to the kitchen and back again, she is always cooking, cleaning, fixing, talking, doing something. In addition to cooking us a delicious assortment of meals--such as red borsct, chicken cutlets and potatoes sprinkled with dill, pancakes (from America!) topped with homemade jam)--her project this weekend was creating apple sauces and juices out of giant barrels of apples they had picked before I had gotten there.

"See," she said to me, "nothing here is ever wasted." She opened up her cabinet to reveal about three dozen jars of jams and pickles and fruits and other concoctions she had created. I was charmed by the idea, but most of the contents looked a little scary to me.

Bolek is a little more laid-back. He would sort of drift around the apartment, disappearing once in a while. I would find him observing me, and so I would smile and he would smile back. He has a great, warm smile. Sometimes he could come over to me to sit on the couch and discuss Poland, their life, his memories. He often did not understand what I was saying, so I tried to have simple conversations with him.

"How did you sleep?" I once asked, in Polish.

"Pretty good," he answered. "I woke up."

He and his son Jarek can sure drink a lot of vodka. The first evening, everyone came to the apartment to see me and have dinner. We ate Polish ham and watched a badly dubbed version of Legally Blonde 2 on the television. I am not one to do shots, so during dinner I nursed a little glass of blackberry flavored vodka. In utter amazement, I watched father and son down one drink after another--while still managing to act completely sober.

For two days, I lived like an old person. Waking up at 7 and going to bed at 9:30 or 10. We spoke Polish slowly. We walked slowly. We ate slowly. I listened to them fret about things only old people fret about. But after two weeks of go-go-go, there was something relaxing about this way of life and I was happy to sink right in.

Colorful Wroclaw.

Bolek: A man of the mall.

Dinner and vodka. (From left to right) Ania (my aunt), Janka (my aunt), Jola (my cousin Jarek's wife), Justyna (Jarek and Jola's daughter), Jarek (my cousin) and Bolek (my uncle).

Monday, September 24, 2007

Out in the open

Ciocia Janka and Ciocia Ania greeting me at the train station.

This weekend, I packed my bag and went to visit my Ciocia (Aunt) Ania and Wujek (Uncle) Bolek who live in
Wroclaw. Sitting on train on the way there, I tried to remember the last time I had seen them. I could not. So then I tried to think about everything I knew about them. I knew that Ania is my dad's older sister. I knew that Ania and Bolek were in their 70's and have been married and living in Wroclaw for a long time. Multiple people have told me that Bolek is a "good man." I also knew that Wroclaw is a city entrenched with my family history because my dad, aunts and grandmother lived there for a long time before coming to the United States.

The truth is, I don't know much about my father's family. My parents divorced when I was young, and I am not very close with my father. This makes my vision of him, his family and our history something of a fuzzy picture for me. There are bits and pieces, places and faces that I know. But often times I am unsure whether my knowledge is based on fact, or just some memory based on folklore or a dream. Often times, it is a picture that I avoid and ignore; as if it is something I have shoved inside a drawer to be lost and forgotten.

I was nervous about the trip. I was nervous because I haven't seen these people in years. I was nervous because these relatives only spoke Polish which meant that I had to communicate with them in my broken Polish. And most of all I was nervous because I knew my visit would open up that drawer.

It was Ciocia Ania who opened it.

She, her son (my cousin) Jarek and my other Ciocia Janka, who currently lives in the United States and also visiting Poland, greeted me at the train station. Ania hugged me so tightly, I thought I would break.

"I wouldn't have recognized you," she said, with a big smile and watery eyes, "You have grown up so much since I last saw you. Yvonne in Wroclaw. I can't believe it."

When I got to the apartment, I met Bolek and we had lunch and all spoke in Polish rather awkwardly about my trip thus far, my plans and circumstances. And that is when Ciocia Ania literally opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of letters. She pulled one out and handed it to me. It was a happy birthday card with a picture of Strawberry Shortcake. Inside in curly cursive was written in Polish, "We have a girl. She was born October 5, 11:45pm." It was dated 1978.

The letter was about me, and it was written by my grandma. I was so touched that Ania had saved the card, I started to cry. As much as I had always tried keep the drawer shut, I couldn't deny it. This was my family.

I wanted to know more, but it was so hard with the language barrier. I spoke Polish the entire time, not well, but better than I ever did. I would ask questions about my family and point to pictures in the albums we looked through. The photo albums, like my memories, were filled with a disorderly mixture of images old and new. Pictures taken decades apart would inexplicably sit next to each other. I hoped that my questions and pictures would provoke long in-depth discussions about my family history, but usually they only brought simple explanations. Once in a while, someone would go off an a tangent and say something--like when Ania mentioned that my grandmother always wore the same shirt or when Bolek remarked that my father was a good boy when he was young. I would grab a hold of these comments as if I were an archaeologist looking anything tangible, even a sentence, to prove some kind of fact or figure in my memory. I wanted to know everything, anything.

At one point I asked Ciocia Janka why my family decided to move to Wroclaw from Ukraine. And she told me that after their father died, it was incredibly hard in Ukraine. They had no money and were hungry all the time, so they decided to move. She started to tear up. "Even just remembering it now makes me sad" she said, pointing to her eyes.

With her words, for a brief moment, the picture I have of my dad and my family past came into a crisp focus, so bright and vivid was it that it also brought tears to my eyes. I already knew that my family was poor, and I knew that they had gone hungry, however, to see her pain about it all these years later, out in the open, surprised me. I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to know what it felt like, what their days were like, how they managed. However, the barrier in telling me went beyond the language. Janka perhaps had a drawer of her own.

"Ciocia, I am sad," I said, in Polish. "Because I know nothing and that is why I cry." She hugged me.

"How could you know? No one has told you." But she didn't tell me more, and I didn't expect her to.

My birth announcement.

Friday, September 21, 2007

There is nothing to fear but fear itself--and maybe Poland.

I didn't write yesterday. I was just plain tired.

I love it here, I really do. And I love my classes and the Germans and the whirlwind of activities and dinners and nights out. But I feel like I have been running so fast--just going, going, going--and getting very little sleep that now I feel like I have hit a brick wall and all I want to do is stop and relax.

The thing about Poland is that I cannot relax. If I were in New York City and feeling this way, I would have no problem putting on pajamas, ordering a pizza, watching TV and napping on the couch. Here, taking a nap seems forbidden. There's a voice inside my head that says, "You’re all the way in Krakow and you want to NAP?"

Yesterday, I tried to take it easy, but it is so hard to relax here. Nothing comes easy, every little thing requires thought, so I am always outside of my comfort zone. I suppose I could go to the apartment and watch television--if I could figure out how to turn it on. I have been in this apartment so two weeks now, and every few days I get inspired to push every button on the television and the two remotes and absolutely nothing happens. Yes, it is plugged in. (And I thought the washing machine fiasco was bad).

It's not just the TV. I try to make a phone call. It doesn't go through. I spend a half an hour trying repeatedly. I have to purchase contact solution. I go to a store that looks like a drug store. It has shampoo and cosmetics and shaving cream, but there is no contact solution. I decide to go to the pharmacy. They tell me that it's not sold there either. Turns out you go to the optician for contact solution and it costs $16 for a bottle. It took me hours to figure this out.

So far, I have not been homesick. Sure, I miss Dan, my friends, my family, and I have been craving scrambled eggs. But on days like this, I do miss that absolute comfort of being home, of being by myself, of knowing that the drug store with my $10 bottle of contact solution is right down the street. There I don't have to worry about the little things. Here, everything is an adventure. Sometimes it is exhilarating, sometimes it absolutely sucks.

The last two days I have also felt a little down in the dumps because the Germans are leaving and through them, I do find some comfort. Yesterday, we took exams (I got a 90%) and today we had a good-bye party. It seems strange that I will return next week for a second session while all the rest of my friends will return to their normal lives.

I am sure the new group of students that start on Monday will be wonderful in their own way, and I have to remind myself that this trip is all about meeting new people. Soon, I won't even have the classes to depend on for making friends.

People have told me that I am "brave" for doing a trip like this and back in the States, it was hard for me to understand why they said this. But now I know. I feel afraid all the time. I am scared to be without company. I am scared to ask the cashier a question. I am scared to get lost. I am scared what's going to happen today, tomorrow, two weeks from now, when I get back home.

But what I am discovering is that despite all this discomfort and this fear of the unknown, I just keep going. And there is no place I would rather be. So far, everything has worked out for the absolute best.

"The inner circle" on our last night out together.

Kristina and me speaking Polish.

Kristina and Philip presenting Agnieszka, one of our teachers, with flowers as thanks.

Class portrait. Back Row: Leon, Kristina, Philip. Front Row: Our teachers Agnieszka and Jusytina, Jill, me and Manuel.

This one is dedicated to the one I love.


Polish Ham is the production, and I am the star, but all of this would be impossible if it were not for my behind-the-scenes crew--my boyfriend Dan. When I initially came up with the idea to take this trip, he was the first one to encourage me to go for it and follow my dreams. And now, through emails, instant messenger and Skype, he is the one I turn to whenever I feel happy or sad, excited or overwhelmed--always there to support me all the way. I may be traveling alone, but he is always by my side.

Today is Dan's birthday, and while I cannot be in New York with him to celebrate, I have decided to share a Polish Ham ode to Dan to tell you all what he means to me--and to toast a great 28 years and many more.

Mam chopaka. On ma na imię Dan. Dzisiaj on ma dwadziescia osiem lat. On jest Amerykaninem. On jest z California ale teraz mieszka w Nowy Yorku.

Dan jest wysokiem i przyslojnym męzczyzną. On interesuje sie sportem i muzyką.

Moj chopak lubi cytać ksiązki. On tez lubi spotykać się z kolegami. Na śniadanie, on lubi jalko i ziemniaky. On nie pije mleko. Nazywa sie "fun-pig."

Ja kocham go.

My love needs no translation, but here it goes:

I have a boyfriend. His name is Dan. Today he is 28 years old. He is American. He is from Calfornia but now he lives in New York.

Dan is a tall and handsome man. He is interested in sports and music.

My boyfriend likes to read books. He also likes going out with his friends. For breakfast, he likes eggs and potatoes. He doesn't drink milk. He is called "Fun Pig."

I love him.

Happy birthday, Dan!

Also a birthday shout-out to Katie, who is both ladna i wesola (pretty and funny) herself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Americanski Hamburger

All the McGoodies.

It was bound to happen. After a day spent musing about my grandparents, my heritage and what it means to be Polish, I ended up eating dinner last night at 1 in the morning at McDonald's.

Really, I blame Philip.

Around 8 'o clock, I joined some of the Germans--Kristina, Line and Philip--at a cozy bar near the Maly Rynek called Po Lewej Stronje for one drink. The first session of classes end on Friday, which means that all of the Germans and the majority of students are leaving on Saturday. (I am staying for a second session of classes). Over drinks, we talked about a possible "going away" party on Friday night. But then Philip announced that he was leaving for Warsaw that evening and won't be there. A going away party without Philip is like a polish ham sandwich without the bread.

With that piece of information, I think that we came to conclusion that the time to celebrate was right there and then, and so the drinks kept coming, the conversation continued and all of a sudden it was way past midnight and all of us were more than tipsy.

We stumbled out of the bar. Kristina and Line were ready for dancing, but Philip and I wanted to eat. And Philip had one place in mind: McDonald's.

"No, not there," Kristina groaned. Perhaps inspired by the bar where we spent the evening (On the Left Side), we had some political discussions, so I was not surprised to learn that Kristina was a bit anti-McDonald's. But Philip insisted.

"Fine, we'll go!" she said, "but you will have to suffer the consequences!"

She didn't order anything. Line got a tea. Philip got some kind of burger sandwich, and I got my usual hamburger, fries and small Sprite.

Later, I think Kristina felt a little bad for giving us a hard time, but I admired her spirit and attitude. It would be no fun if people didn't have opinions. And I certainly didn't let it spoil my meal.

Philip eats, as Kristina looks on.

Line and Kristina at the "left" bar.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Coming Home.

My mom in Krakow, circa 1960's.

Me in Krakow, 2007.

Yesterday over a pierogi dinner, Philip asked me what it felt to be in Poland, my "homeland." The question stumped me. Here in
Poland, I am a foreigner. My home is in America. But I cannot deny that this country stirs something deep inside of me.

On the plane in Dublin going to Warsaw, I remember watching the people board, immediately recognizing the Polish faces. There are faces that are round and flushed, some which are long and gaunt, but all with the same haunted eyes, the look that unspeakably says that "I am Polish." When I got off the plane, I said to my mother that if she told me that all the people on board were related to me, I would believe her. I recognize a familiarity in each and every one of them.

Yesterday I walked through Cloth Hall, which is in the center of the Rynek and is a marketplace where they sell souvenirs. Walking from stand to stand felt like walking through an attic filled with items from my past. There were the dolls dressed in traditional Polish costume. My grandmother actually sewed me one of these costumes to wear. The rows and rows of brown boxes, which I remember using to hold my change when I was a little girl. The fine crystal etched with flowers and abstract shapes that still sit in my mother's cabinet. The lacy curtains and doily place mats that decorated my childhood home. These items are not at all American, but they occupy a big part of my memories, my life, my identity--in the United States.

Before I left for my trip to Poland, my mother told me a story about my grandfather. During the second World War, he was a prisoner in Germany. He was forced to work on a farm, but luckily the owner of the work camp was kind. So he managed okay, but he was heartsick for his homeland and his family.

After the war, he returned to Poland. My grandmother, an American citizen who had moved to Poland as a child, had the opportunity to go back to United States and take the family along with her. Most of her family, including her mother and brothers, opted to go. But my grandfather insisted they stay. He loved Poland, had missed it so much when he in Germany, that he never wanted to leave again.

And so they stayed, and soon the country turned communist under the Soviet rule, and they did not have the option to leave for a long time.

My grandfather was true to his word and never left Poland. Even when my grandmother and mother came to the United States in the 1960s, he stayed. Finally, he agreed to come visit, but he died before he ever made it.

I never knew my grandfather, and quite honestly, do not know much about him. But hearing this story drew a sketch in my mind--albeit a small one--of the type of man he was. He sounds a bit stubborn, but also loyal and sentimental, someone who I can identify with, which makes him feel like a real person to me, not just some name I hear in conversation, a portrait in a photo album.

I am in the country that my grandfather adored. I will never have the chance to ask him why it meant so much to him--what is it about the Polish land, the people, the culture that he pined for as a prisoner, that made him so determined never to leave. The answer to that I have to discover on my own. The more I learn, the more I feel at home.

Things from my Polish-American past: Polish dolls...

brown boxes...

crystal glassware...

decorative plates.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Lazy Sundays and other thoughts

Sunday in Krakow, I was a waste of space. Waking up at 12 noon, I tried to study my Polish only to fall asleep again. Finally around 6 pm, I wiggled out of my pajamas and decided to head out to civilization to get something to eat. I was actually craving (seriously now) a polish ham sandwich, topped with cheese and a juicy tomato. I considered how I would ask for the ham at the deli. They don't have pounds here so do I order by grams? I wasn't sure, but then I discovered I didn't need to know yet. The market was closed, as was every single shop in my neighborhood.

Walking down the street, the only places open were the liquor stores and smoky bars filled with old men. I had to walk all the way to the main square to find a bite to eat--which ended up being a cardboard-tasting personal pizza and a Spite.

Something to consider when visiting Krakow: Places are closed on Sunday.

Here are some other observations that I have made:

Polish money is called zloty. The banknotes come in denominations of 200, 100, 50, 20 and 10, and then there are coins for 5, 2, 1. There are a bunch of smaller coins that don't mean anything to me. These little boogers are called groszy and I think there are 100 groszy in 1 zloty but mainly, they just take space in my wallet and confuse me.

According to, 1 zloty is equivalent to .37 US dollar, so to figure out how much things cost, I divide everything by three and add a few more dollars. Most things are cheap. Today I spent 17,5 zolty (a little over $6) on lunch, which included a big plate with 6 different foods/salads and an apple juice.

What is annoying about Polish money is that they never have change here. Last night, when I tried to purchase my cardboard pizza and soda, which cost 12.5 zolty, the counter girl's eyes nearly popped out of her head when I gave her a 50 bill.

"Do you have change?" is the most common phrase you hear from every vendor in Krakow. They want the zloty coins, not the bills. And usually I don't have change--because every vendor asks for it--and so they sigh and reluctantly hand over the change, acting as if they are giving away the very last coins in their register. That's if they have it. One of my cab drivers took a lower fee because he didn't have change for one of my bigger bills. Even though he was getting paid less than he should have, even HE didn't want the booger groszy.

Does anyone know? Where are all the coins in Krakow?

Polish money.

My lunch today. Not too shabby for $6.


I don't know what I was expecting food-wise in
Krakow (maybe a pierogi stand here or there). I would never associate a kebab with Polish people, and yet, they are all over the place, sometimes four restaurants on one street.

Gerda, who is from
Denmark but lives in Belgium, told me that the kebab is the fast food of Europe. They're everywhere, not only Krakow. The Germans say that Polish kebabs taste like crap compared to theirs. I had one the other day and thought it quite tasty. I like it. It's filling, fast and cheap--but not very Polish.

One of the many Kebab shops.


If I am going to drink alcohol, I like to drink wine. I have come to the wrong place. All wine is imported in Poland, so most people drink beer or vodka drinks or some other kind of hard alcohol because wine can be expensive and it is not always very good.

When ordering wine here, you only get asked if you want red or white. Some places might even ask you if you would like a sweet wine or a dry wine, but that is as much differentiation as you are going to get. If the price is decent, I will usually take the plunge and see what I get.

Okay, I have finally figured out one of the reasons why I keep getting lost. The streets change names! Take my street in New York City, 71st Street, which runs along the entire island of Manhattan. As long as you stay on this street, you know you are on 71st Street, might it be east or west.

Here in Krakow, you might be walking on ul. Krowoderska and think you are still on ul. Krowoderska the whole time. But then you cross a boulevard and suddenly the street changes its name to ul. Mazowiecka. It's the same street! But two different names! So now I realize the times when I got lost because I was coming from a different direction looking for ul. Krowoderska but walked past ul. Mazowiecka because I didn't realize it was the same thing.

I have even witnessed intersections of two roads which are actually four different roads. At this corner, all the streets change names at once, just like that! For no reason but to confuse people like me! And I still can't pronounce any of them!




Street performers:
Being from New York, I am used to the average street performer. We have the energetic group of break dancers, the man who plays the electronic flute in the sweltering 42nd Street station for the 1,2, 3 lines, the Mariachi band on the subway.

In Krakow, "the statue" is quite popular. These people are decked out in one metallic color, standing on a box very still, and will only move when you give them change. In the evening, I have seen jugglers performing with sticks of fire, which always draws a crowd. I enjoy the people who play the accordion because where else but Poland do you know people who can play the accordion? My all time favorites are those who play the accordion in the traditional Polish costume. These are usually older men and they always look kind of bored. I like to imagine them getting ready for work, shaving their faces, brushing their teeth and then dressing in their red, black and white costumes. I wonder if they wear their costumes while they eat or watch tv. Now that is something I would drop change for. Well, at the very least, some groszy.

My favorites: the traditional performers.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rocky Road

Hikers Yvonne and Katrin.

I went on a trip with my school group to Zakopane, Poland's most famous mountain resort, known for its excellent skiing and hiking. Our agenda was as follows: Two hour hike from Barzeziny to Murowaniec, where we would break in the lodge for lunch. Afterwards, we would walk another hour until we arrived in the town of Zakopane.

My first impression was not great. For the first two hours, the path we followed was wide, rocky and uphill. I am in reasonably good shape, but I found it difficult. The jagged edges of the large rocks would pierce my feet with every step. Due to the irregular placement of the rocks, I found it difficult to walk with a normal stride. It rained on and off during our walk, which made the path slippery. I felt like I spent most of the hike looking at the rocks on the ground instead of the beautiful scenery around me.

The first two hours rocked.

Luckily, I had Katrin with me the whole time. While everyone in our group somehow managed to scamper up the hill with perplexing ease, Katrin and I rambled along at our own pace, walking rocks and talking life. Out of all the Germans, Katrin reminds me most of my friends at home. She has the worldliness of Hila, the curiosity and adventure-seeking of Meagan, the anything goes personality of Danielle.

Katrin is a person who always needs to be doing something, and boy, has she done a lot in her 30 years of life. From traveling all over the world to learning five different languages (German, English, French, Polish and Dutch), she's been an au pair the United States and is now working on a PhD. She also enjoys spending time with her boyfriend, going to the theater and sympathy, hiking, swimming and running. She has so many interests, I can barely keep up with them all. But it makes for interesting conversation.

The lodge was a welcome respite from the uphill rock climb.I had a (Polish) ham sandwich and some hot cocoa. We left for the second half of our hike feeling cold, wet and tired, but here, the path got more bearable, the views more beautiful, the pain of the first two hours worth it. The wind started to pick up, the temperature lowered and all around us nature seemed to come alive. Against the grey sky, everything from the green shrubbery to the snowy mountaintops seemed to glow brightly with color. The fresh air was invigorating to breath in, but it also left my hands red and cold.

Snowy mountains

Vibrant colors.

Beautiful view.

The end of the hike was all rocks downhill which for me was worse than rocks uphill. My legs had to work overtime to keep my balance steady and I even slid and fell at one point. Katrin kept me busy talking the whole time so I didn't think of it too much. I was glad when it was over, but I was also glad that I did it.

The town of Zakopane was somewhat of a disappointment. I thought it would be lovely, but instead there was a lot of touristy knickknack shops next to Nike and The North Face stores. Perhaps if we had ventured off the main boulevard, we would have seen some of the architecture the village is known for, but we only had an hour, so we didn't have the time and didn't see much.

I was tired when we got back to Krakow, but then I decided to go out with the Germans for dinner in Kazimierz, which turned into drinks in Kazimierz. Other people from the program joined us throughout the evening.

Katrin noticed that my English language was started to deteriorate. I am the type of person who mimics phrases and accents. Hanging out with the Germans, I was starting to pick up their version of English, so sometimes I would say words wrong or mix up my grammar without realizing it. The others didn't notice, but Katrin, who is quite fluent, started to correct my English and then write text messages in Polish to some of her friends.

I drank way too much wine, and by the end of the night, my eyes were drooping. I didn't come home until 3:30 in the morning. When I woke up at noon, my legs were sore and so was my head.

Gerda, me and Katrin.

Kristina, Line and Phillip telling secrets