Praying to Gods in Warsaw

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The day was sweltering. Thirty-seven degrees. That’s ninety-eight for the folks back in the U.S. of A.  In my humble opinion anything between thirty-four to forty is terrible. That all converts as nineties to one hundred which translates to hot-as-f*#k. It is meant to be like this all week. I suppose we can all thank the climate change that too many continue to deny or ignore. It troubles me that I am going to live through this horrific process. I would like to be as selfish as the rich and the ignorant,  and just expect it to all take place when I’m dead and gone. My nordic blood can’t take this shit. If I have nordic blood. Where ever the blood is from it’s somewhere where it was colder, and it isn’t adapting rapidly enough, but nothing is because unbeknownst to some the planet, and it’s inhabitants, are not software- not yet anyway. I suppose I should fall of this soapbox.

A fly dies at my feet, and I can hear the last buzz of it’s life as it’s legs bend in rigid rigor mortis. It appears to be a natural death, but I blame the heat. The other flies buzz in a funeral procession.

This day I have wandered to a Palace on an island, and a huge park in Warsaw. I left early in the morning in order to have some time outside before the heat. This is my fourth time in Warsaw, but I only have a day or hours to spend in the city so I have to see parts of the city in sections. I don’t regret the choice of going to the park. It wasn’t too difficult to wake early because of my hostel mates.

I’m staying at a shoddy but acceptable little hostel in a four room dorm. I had this ridiculous idea that maybe the four rooms which are a higher price would have less of a chance of having some party people. I was really tired after the first Angloville and in need of rest, but it was foolish of me. If I didn’t have to try and make my money last for six weeks- including accommodations and transportation- then I would have spent the money on a single room. Air-conditioning would be nice too.

When I opened the door to the room I knew immediately I was in trouble. The people were not in the room but the room was a disaster as if teenage girls had blown up in the room. I wasn’t too far off. Three young Polish girls- maybe twenty were having a party weekend in Warsaw. I forget about the weekenders. As if everyone lives like I do. I have to imagine myself as a twenty something going to spend the weekend in the city (which would be San Francisco) it isn’t all just for backpackers and travelers, people do live here. I foolishly continue to live my life as if it is in the center. In a way it is, but I pass through other’s centers, and judging by the glare and scowl of one of the girls on seeing me unpacking my bag in her room I had invaded their girl weekend. Feeling’s mutual love, I thought, our centers just collided.

Since they were young women on the mission to party I prayed to the Gods of Vodka and wished that the girls would hit the city at night and stay out until at least five in the morning, and the Gods answered my prayers, only I didn’t trust in the Gods at first. As I was returning to the hostel after wandering around the city, I passed the women on the street. They were heading out into the night. I smiled with a jubilant glee. If I could just fall into a deep sleep I should be able to get a couple of hours of sleep. Unfortunately, it was hot and I slipped in and out of restless sleep feeling anxious about not falling asleep before they came home. I kept dreaming about being woken up by drunks and I even had a dream that another bed was shoved into the room. I did finally fall asleep, but woke to the sound of someone struggling to open the door. Even sober the door was difficult to open so I knew they must have been having a hell of a time trying to get in. There was a dusty light in the room meaning that it must have been around six in the morning. Good job girls, I thought to myself, that was an hour longer than I had hoped. Only two had return and immediately they both feel asleep and I feel fast asleep too. I woke again at eight a.m. as the third girl came home. She tried to wake her friends, but they were not having it, and it forced her to go to bed. She climbed onto the top bunk and caught eye-contact with me. It was the scowling girl. She gave me half bewildered half scowl glare and I returned it with a smile. She had no idea how proud of her I was that she returned so late. The girls had allowed me the sleep I needed. The Vodka Gods answered. I got up soon after the scowler passed out. And prepared to leave for my day. I looked back at the three young women tangled in their bedding. They’ll be up around two I thought. I knew all this from personal experience.

As I walked out of the hostel toward the park I decided that I would make an offering to the party Gods; pour a shot out to the Vodka Gods, and pray that the girls have another all night away-rager. If only I could pray away the heat.

Another fly dropped dead as I typed. I looked down at the fly carnage. There were three dead flies. It’s the heat, I thought, or there is something deadly in the air. A small bird landed on a candle and began to eat the wax. I didn’t think this wax eating was good for anyone, but I had to let these things go and just pour the Vodka on the floor.

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While on the Bus to Warsaw

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I woke to the sound of the bus as it slowed to pull into the gas station. I had fallen asleep for a few minutes during the ten hour bus ride from Prague to Warsaw. It wasn’t really sleep so much as that floating space in between being awake and sleeping. When your eyes are resting, and to some extent your mind is quiet because it is too tried to think, but still, you are not asleep, you are not resting, you’re just floating. I slipped in and out of this sleep/wake phase for nearly the entire trip. I’ve done this bus ride before back in November and in December, but both times I had taken the overnight bus, and the darkness had allowed me to easily fall into the necessary sleep that I needed to be able to fully function for the following days. This was my first time traveling the full ten hours during the waking hours. I was going to be very tired for the upcoming week. I could feel it.

I’ve found the the favorite part of my journeys have been the actual physical process of transportation. I don’t know why; when for many people this is the most exhausting part. It is in the decision making process, the planning part, where I think most people find joy, and where I have the most stress. I fill with anxiety over the what-ifs of the process, as if there is just too much on the internet to sift through, and I am not capable of doing it. I find it confounding that I can not seem to do the simplest part of the journey which is to plan ahead. I wonder how a person can carry so much worry, so much anxiety and still manage to cross the ocean and visit other places. I often think I am doing it all wrong. As if there is some kind of rule book to this whole life thing and I never got the book and I especially didn’t read the chapter, “The Accidental Vagabond: How to travel the world and not worry about it.”

“What do you do in your real life?” Asked a man on the bus who was sitting beside me. I paused a second in my response and then shrugged. “This.” I said.

I was on my way to Poland to a place called Zawidowice, three hours outside of Warsaw. I was volunteering with a program called Angloville. I had done it before in November. It is an English immersion program where Polish participants pay to stay a week in an isolated spa or hotel with native English speakers in order to converse for nearly ten hours a day all in english. It is a really interesting program and you can meet some very interesting people and it also does help to improve their english skills, but all this interesting was not my main motivation for signing up again. I did enjoy the program the last time, and I made some friends with the Polish participants, all of whom were adults with adult lives and serious careers and families, but, this time my motivation was about finding shelter.

I’d been living in Prague for nearly a year- give or take a few excursions to other countries for volunteer work or paid work. My time there was coming to an end. My work visa expired, and now I am back to the allotted 90 day tourist visa. Originally, I had intended to return to Portland in August in order to get prepared to move back to China, but I couldn’t find a flight back to the states that I could afford so I had to wait until I was able to find a price within my meager range. My return date is set for September 22nd, but my visa was up at the very end of July which put me in a bit of a predicament. I had no place to live, no visa to legally find work, and I had to make what little money I had made stretch for almost another two months. In my fantasies I took this time to just back-pack and travel around, but in truth I was worried that I didn’t have the money to actually do this, not with the cost of travel, and accommodations being so high at the height of summer.  I had a friend that was letting me share his room, but I knew his generosity would become strained, and that eventually I would outwear my welcome so I needed to find a way to have shelter and food, but to spend as little money as possible while having these necessary things. Angloville is a volunteer program, but if you are the “teacher”, but they put you up in a room and they feed you. They feed you quite well. I eat far better while I am at Angloville than I do on my own. I decided to sign up for two weeks meaning two programs.

My visits to Warsaw have been brief. I have a moment to check into a hostel, then wander around the city, but in a state of ignorance, not knowing what I am looking at or where I am going. This time I had even less time to visit. I just checked in; met up with a friend of a friend; had a couple of beers; went back to the hostel,  went to sleep, and then was woken by the other travelers who were leaving early. I got up. I grabbed my pack. I checked out. Lastly, I searched for the bus that would take me to the Angloville site. There were another three hours on the bus to go.

Although, I have done this before it won’t be the same because it is the people who create the environment whether they know it or not. The Polish participants will be taking a break from their lives to work on their english, their motivations ranging from the need to speak english for work, to improving for school or for personal growth. The English coaches come in different groups of intentions: Twenty-somethings on break from school or extending their travels their last summer freedoms before entering the work market. One or two people in the 30’s to 40’s range the rare group that is difficult to find because they are already in the work market or the family world, and the retired mostly former teachers. These are only the surface groupings, but over the course of six days the individual lives are exposed and then suddenly we say good-bye and return to the separate seas from where we came. Most of us will never cross paths again, but we will always remember each other because we communicated. Really communicated- and this for me is the beauty of traveling. It is difficult to allow fear to create a hate in your heart for a nation when you have communicated with a person from that place. When people speak of war against a place- you no longer think of some unknown place from far away, you see the face and the smile of that person you sat across from at the table; the one who you shared bread and the one with who you communicated.

I grew up comparing my life to others. “Oh their life is so much more interesting than mine.” Comparison only breeds envy and envy breeds discontent and discontent equals a pretty low perception of life. After awhile you can no longer see what is special or unique about yourself you can only focus on what others do and how they do it better than you. This comparing (that I have no idea where it came from) has sometimes attached itself to my life abroad; Facebook doesn’t help. Everyone’s life looks amazing on Facebook. This is something I’m working on this comparison crap. It is not healthy, and it’s ridiculous. Where it comes in is when I think my travels are not exciting enough or I don’t have anything interesting or worth writing down on this here blog. Ridiculous. This must change. There is no need for an exciting story there are plenty of exciting stories out there.  My stories are mostly about the people I meet, passing and greeting strangers in deep and thoughtful ways and then like the tide we pull apart and I find myself on another shore, or mixed in the silt of the ocean floor or in the belly of a seal. In many ways it is a very normal life. It feels like my daily life, but at times I am in a new country. Perhaps that is why I like the actual travel part and not the planning because it reminds me that I am going somewhere that I am indeed traveling which is not a daily activity. There’s no comparison to explain all the unique moments I have with people because every moment is different and this is enough. All this is enough, I’m grateful to have this much.

I’m curious as too how different this Angloville will be compared to the last. The only proper what to make a comparison. Will I make a good a close friend or will a do a lot of reading on my down time. Either is okay. I will find out very, very soon- as soon as the bus arrives.

Christmas in Poland

I spent my Christmas in Poland, and of course I completely neglected to take any photos, so I’ll have to just share with you a picture of snow from the train, and hopefully my words can describe the food well enough for you to picture it.

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I met Agnieszka in November through a volunteer program called Angloville (a program I still have neglected to write about at this point) located in Poland. Agnieszka was one of the students in this very intensive five day program. Once the program ended we said our good-bye, but through social media we were able to stay in contact. This christmas was my first since my mom had died, and so it was a particularly hard one, or I anticipated it to be emotionally difficult. Agnieszka and her family invited me into her home, and I was treated so warmly, and had many kisses (the Polish kiss three times on the cheek as a hello). I barely thought about mom, until I got back to Prague, and then I cried (like I do almost everyday, but this is grief it makes you cry). It was a very nice Christmas and as a special treat it snowed on the 25th which is the day my mom and I used to celebrate.

I want to share a few things that I observed and in which I participated.

Poland is a Catholic country, and for them the most important day of Christmas is the 24th. The family gathers for an early supper, and afterwards presents are passed out, then they go to Mid-Night mass. On the 25th there is more eating with the family, and church, then the celebration continues on the 26th with more food and church. In Agnieszka’s family we also had a dinner on the 28th because some of the family was in Austria skiing on the 24th.

Agnieszka and her sister Anna (or Annya) emphasized to me with great enthusiasm (because I made them go through the entire three meals with me as I wrote it all down) that every family is different, and traditional food is based on the region and the family. So, with that in mind- this is the traditional Polish dishes from Angnieszka’s family in the Mazowsze region. Their home is about an hour and a half outside of Warsaw.

I took a bus from Prague to Warsaw, and I arrived on the 23rd. After a quiet meal and meeting Anna I went to bed.

The Food

December 24th

First we start with kisses! Okay, actually best wishes. Agnieszka’s mother passed around a tray of Christian wafers called Oplatek. I’m not Catholic or Polish so this was a very new experience for me. The wafer is thin and nearly transparent, it is white in color and has a bland flavor and tended to stick to the roof of my mouth. It is large like the size of a graham cracker, not round like the communion wafers I’ve seen in the movies, and the image of the Virgin Mary or the nativity scene is embossed onto the wafer. First everyone breaks a piece of the wafer off, and then goes to each person in the room to offer them a small piece of your wafer as they offer you a small piece of theirs. With the breaking of the wafer comes a wish for life, the new year, words of hope and love, then you kiss on the cheek (three times of course) and you hug. You do this before eating.

Traditional there are 12 dishes to eat, and there is no meat on the 24th. People tend to eat carp like they do in Czech Republic and in Slovakia. We didn’t have carp we had herring which I am told is a lot better tasting than carp. We also had less dishes because the family was smaller this year, and 12 dishes are a lot of food for a limited amount of people.

The first dish was a borsch (barszcz in Polish). This is a beet root soup with tiny dumplings called uszka which means ears. The uszka is a flour pastry stuffed with boiled mushrooms, and onions that were fried in butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The uszka is placed into the soup bowls first and then the hot beet root soup is poured over the dumplings. This was one of my favorite dishes. The combination of the hot sweet beet with the zing of the onions and mushrooms was delicious.

Next we had the fish. Szuba which is a traditional Russian dish, but they incorporated it into their own Christmas Eve dinner because it is a family favorite. This is a layered dish like a casserole and it is served cold. The first layer is potatoes that are boiled, finely cubed, then salted and peppered. The second layer are onions that have been sautéed in butter. The third layer is the herring. The fourth layer are eggs that have been boiled and chopped. The fifth layer is beets that have been boiled and chopped and the final layer is a thick slather of mayonnaise (yes mayonnaise). The dish must be prepared a day before serving because the flavors all need the time to marinate. The mayonnaise turns a bright pink, and I had absolutely no idea I was eating mayonnaise. I had really liked this dish too, much to my surprise, and before I knew about the mayonnaise. Herring is an interesting and slightly fatty tasting fish. The beets and eggs cut the fatty taste and it was savory with a sweet after taste.

The third dish were the pierogis. Pierogis are a very traditional Polish food, and these ones were specially made for Christmas. The dough is made from flour, salt and water. It is the same dough that is used for the uszka. The pierogis are stuffed with sour and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. They are then boiled, and served immediately after boiling.

The final dish for this meal was a noodle dish made with bow tie noodles. The sauce is made from cream and butter and honey then mixed with nuts and raisons, and poppy seeds. Poppyseeds are a must on Christmas. I don’t know the significance of the poppyseed for Christmas only that is has to be served. I didn’t like this dish. I have discovered that I don’t like pasta in a sweet sauce, and I’m not a huge poppyseed fan.

We ended dinner with kompot a hot drink made from smoked plumes, apples, and pears that are boiled into a hot tea and then mixed with sugar, honey and raisons. I really liked this tea. The smokiness was very strong and it had an earthy taste.

Dessert was a choice of poppyseed cake, fruitcake, or gingerbread cake covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate.

After dinner santa came to visit and gave some presents to the twins and to their baby brother.

December 25th

It snowed.

Breakfast was around 9:00. Supper was around 2:00. Meat is served.

Chicken noodles soup was the first course. I’ve had chicken noodle soup before, but it wasn’t the meal itself that was interesting to me, but how the meal is served. First the cooked noodles are placed into each individual bowl, then you add your own desired amount of dill, then lastly you pour the hot chicken broth over the noodles.

The meat was all cured and smoked by Agnieszka’s father. It was various preparations of pork and wild bore. There were also pickled mushroom, pickled peppers, pickle pumpkin, and pickled plums. The main dish was a roasted duck stuffed with apple dill stuffing. For the second and third day we ate much of the same food that was served on Christmas eve.

In the evening after dinner we had wine and Agnieszka’s parents and sister brought out their homemade liquors and we had a tasting. I’ll list the liquors in the order of my favorite to least.

Ginger-raspberry- This was spicy and sweet, but not too sweet that it was overly syrupy.
Current- sweet and tart
Quince- sweet and sour
Cherry- sweet
Raspberry and quince- sweet and mildly tart
Gooseberry
Ginger- spicy almost hot.
Mirabelka plum- this is made from a small white plume.
Then we had a smidgin of cognac

The 26th and dinner on the 28th was a repeat of many of the same dishes and desserts from the 24th, but the main dish was roasted pork medallions in a dark gravy served with rice.

Portions are served on small plates, as compared to the nearly gluttonous American tradition of piling everything all at once on a plate. Dinner is also much much earlier than it is in the U.S. There is a supper which is large with multiple dishes and served around 2:00 p.m., then there is a small dinner served around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. For dessert or snacks (after the ginger bread cake and coffee or tea) is usually some fruit.

My stomach was full and my heart was calm as I left Poland and took a long train ride back to Prague. I left behind a new friend, and a new family, and traditional dishes, but I was able to bring one small family tradition back to Prague with me. Every morning when I wake up I make myself a hot cup of honey water with lemon. And, just like they taught me, I place the honey in cold water the night before to dissolve and to maintain all of the healing and healthy properties.

Many thanks to my Polish family for a lovely Christmas.