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.

I’m a Literature Teacher (in China)

If you’re reading for advice on how to be a proper teacher in China stop reading right now. GO back up to your browser and search again. There’s no advice for you here.  You have been warned. If you continue to read on— lower your expectations.

I just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby. I had read it once before many years’ ago. I had one identical thought in regard to both readings,  “Wow, what an easy a quick read.” It surprised me that it was such a short novel. Other than that my feelings about the book changed dramatically from the first read to my second.  I liked it much more this time around. I think the first time there was so much pomp and expectation that I thumbed my nose at it a little, but who cares about the first time that was ten or fifteen years ago. It’s this time that matters now. I really got into the story; gasping at parts, putting it down to whisper to absolutely no one, “wow this is a really painful story.” There were other thoughts in my head too as I read and reacted to the characters, and to Nick Carraway’s narration. I’d lower the book, and think, “wow that’s really good”, then I’d sigh, “god”, I hope my students like it”. My students are going to read The Great Gatsby in English. Did I mention they were Chinese? Of course I did.

It’s been a challenge trying to know what to teach to ESL students in an equivalent of an American high school course. I can’t even begin to go into what encapsulates those challenges, hell, I could write a novel about the challenges that range from culture to language to idealisms, but I’m not going to. I’m going to talk about me. Me and my choices. For better or for worse, I’ve made some choices. I don’t think I’m a good teacher by the standards of people who complain about teachers. I mean I’m not bad like all the movie stereotypes of bad teachers. You know the stereotypes. The ones who go out drinking and partying then stumble into school the next morning with a hang over and a lazy attitude. The ones who hate kids but are tenured and they’re mean and they humiliate students. The ones who are so boring and cling to the same teaching styles as teachers back in the 1950’s. I’ve seen teen movies, and so have you we know the stereotypes. I’m not any of those, but I’m no Erin Gruwell. I’m new and inexperienced, and when I applied for this job I didn’t even know I was going to be a Literature teacher. I thought I was going to teach creative writing because that’s where I do I have experience. It was when I got here I found out exactly what I was doing, and I was handed a huge tome of a book from Princeton Hall and told to do whatever I wanted; as if I knew what I was doing. There were no outlines or curriculum. The previous teacher had some stuff, but I could tell it was also her first time teaching literature and her notes were a mess plus they were for 3rd grade level and I had 17 year olds. I understand her reasoning once I figured out the challenge of language, but it’s too late now. I did have an advantage over her that I at least studied literature, but not enough to be a teacher. I wanted to be an actress and a writer, but that’s another post.

I know I told you I wasn’t going to offer any advice, and I’m not, but I will give you one small note of insight, just to prepare you if you’re thinking of teaching in China. You will never really know the level of English of the student. Just because they are in your advanced English class doesn’t mean they are really that advanced in English. Placement is not just based on English scores but in their overall scores. High in math and science does not mean high in English but it will still put them in an advanced English class. At least this is the case at my school. It could be the same at your school, maybe not, but you’ll still never really understand because they will never tell you that they don’t understand you. You have to pry it out of them. Today, I said for the millionth time. “You have to tell me if you don’t understand. Do not say, okay, okay, or nod or say, I got it, if you don’t.” They all nodded and said, “okay okay we’ve got it.”

The Princeton Hall book. Man. Dear Princeton Hall please do not be offended, but this text-book was hell for teaching my kids and I eventually gave up and abandoned it. Borrowing the words my cousins  from the California bay area liked to say, “It was hella boring.” I mean I could get into the stuff, but it was so academic and these kids just trudged, and then that made me trudge, and that made me bored, and then I was a boring teacher forcing the kids to read, ‘The Dog that Bites People’. We did make it through ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Which was only enjoyed by one kid. The language was too old too old upper staunch British. This is not Princeton Hall’s fault. Who knows who picked the book. It is amazing that it made it though the censors. Right smack in the middle is a section on the Chinese poets who were a part of that student thing we are not supposed to talk about that happened 25 years ago, that we aren’t supposed to mention, with that iconic picture of that man and that thing that starts with a ‘t’ that ‘never happened’. I was shocked and almost scared to see it, but then I realized it passed the censors so who knows…, but still I abandoned the book and have since struggled to teach literature without it.

We read The Outsiders the last semester. We took most of the semester to read it. The advanced class came out with an understanding of narration, themes, symbolism, POV, protagonist, the difference between fiction and non-fiction; the basics. But, only two students actually read the whole book. My intermediate students walked away knowing what a protagonist is and that it was Ponyboy. They didn’t read it at all. Thankfully there was the movie. The kids today still think Dally is cool. After the movie some of the kids were even playing with switch blades, the butterfly kind, flipping them like they did in the movie. I wasn’t sure if this was a bad thing or not, but it ended soon after and there were no actual blades in the butterflies. This semester I tried to go back to the Princeton Hall, but I only taught for one week before getting the news that my mom had died, so I had to abandon school for two weeks. That is a whole ‘nother mess of life, but not for this post. When I came back I tried another week with the book and just had to give it up. So what did I go and do? I picked ‘Beowulf’. I don’t recommend this, and I don’t know why I did it. What possessed me? They have a big test coming up in the next week, and I just hope they do well, because I feel like I made a mistake trying to get them to read this poem. They didn’t really read it. If they didn’t read The Outsiders, they were not going to read ‘Beowulf’. I read ‘Beowulf’. I broke it down and eventually ended up spoon feeding it to some of them. And, they still didn’t eat.

My kids are good people, but not always the best students. It’s not true that all Chinese students are good students. They are normal people like everywhere, and some students are good and others are not so good. When I say good or bad I mean in the manner or degree of studying and application to the classwork. My students are also affluent so I think they get a little leniency. The leniency is not a fact it just seems that way… wink, wink. My class is an illusion. I wont go into what that means except to say that it’s a good thing I studied acting. I’m in the new fazes of the “new foreign teacher,” and I still have the idealistic hopes that I can somehow teach. After a year it seems that this ideal is given up on (not just by foreign teacher, but by Chinese teachers too). This can really only be understood by being here and teaching here, but my guess is that much of this frustration of “teaching” comes with the heavy, heavy, heavy emphasis on testing. Many teachers try to fight the testing trap because you learn very quickly that testing is not actually learning, but its impossible to fight. It’s impossible as a Chinese teacher so forget it if you’re a foreigner. But, like I mentioned I’m new and still have the stubborn ideals. Next year. Next year, I’ll give up and just do it for money. This year I’m trying to teach ‘Beowulf’, The Outsiders, and The Great Gatsby. What a mixture right? How’d I come up with this formula? By not knowing what to do. Was it successful? Well, my class doesn’t determine college acceptance so I’ll never know. But, since you asked I’ll tell you how I picked my literature.

The Outsiders: I wanted a book written by a teenager about teenagers because my students are teenagers. It was a plus that it was written by a girl because girls need to know that they are valuable and can write novels and do anything.

‘Beowulf’: Man, I don’t know. I guess I got this hair up my butt that told me I needed to get some classic literature into them. You know the 7th century stuff the first written work of England, cause well it’s supposed to be a literature class. I like that I said ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was too old too upper class staunch British and then I make them read a 7th century poem originally written in Old English. Classic hypocrisy. Ironically, I never read ‘Beowulf’ before and I was an English major. Maybe sub-consciously I just wanted to read it. My advanced class seems to be grasping it pretty well, but my intermediate classes…. You know, I can’t even begin to explain what its like to teach my classes, but I will emphasize that I really like my kids, and oddly I think they like me too, but is literature being taught? Is anything being taught or is it all a big show?

The Great Gatsby: I read that The Great Gatsby and Catcher in The Rye are very popular books in modern China. They are translated of course, and for reasons I can infer but won’t, these two books appeal to people living in China. They’ve recently increased in popularity. I’m sure the movie helped The Great Gatsby, but Catcher in the Rye has never been made into a movie and its popularity is greater than Gatsby. So why Gatsby and not Cather in the Rye? Because The Great Gatsby has been made into a film several times. We’ll watch the flashy new one with Leo (even though I’m not a fan of it). I use the movies to bribe the kids into doing their work. We watched the 2007 Beowulf (So. So bad) and I said to my class, the intermediate kids, “Pay attention, because you will be asked on the midterm to write about the differences and similarities between the movie and the poem”. One of my students looked at me and said, “Hmmm. Good strategy.” So I have the student stamped approval as far as strategy goes.

I’ve felt bad at times thinking that I’m doing these kids a disservice by lacking so much preparation and structure, but during TOFEL time I learned a lesson about disservice. When the kids were really gearing up for the tests, and not listening to me because they were studying for TOFEL, I had asked them to put their test books away. I said this is not your TOEFL class this is your literature class. One student smirked at me and said, “yes, but this class is not important, TOEFL is important”. I knew he was speaking the truth. The school informs without telling me that TOEFL is important and that English literature is for the resume. So, I have room to stumble and be unprepared and dissolution myself with the belief that I’m teaching these kids some things about western literature, and helping them with their future transition into western college life— because that is what they desire, and a lot of money is being spent into making this desire a reality. With all of this in mind, I think The Great Gatsby is an excellent choice even if me and the two kids who read The Outsiders are the only ones who read it.

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Some of my kids being forced to perform a scene from ‘The Outsiders’.

Every Closed Door

Cover of "Cube"
Cover of Cube

For every door that closes another door opens… so the saying goes.

Anyone ever see the movie Cube? It’s a sci-fiction movie released in 1997. Seven strangers wake up inside a cube. A similar scenario to the Twilight Zone episode 79, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (which I was excited to find out was the inspiration behind the idea for Cube. Isn’t it great when you pick up on such nuances before reading them on wikipedia).It is also similar to Sarte‘s “No Exit,” which was the inspiration behind episode 79.

Episode 79 spoiler* In “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”  it is revealed to the audience that the five characters who wake up in a cylinder are really donated toys that believe they are living beings. This revelation is not quite as frightening as “No Exit” because if you think about it the toys are being donated so they will on christmas day be given to some boy or girl. Will this be terrifying for the toys? If they are anything like the Velvet Rabbit then no. And, eventually they will be out of the cylinder. In “No Exit” the characters are in hell, and hell as we figure out is being stuck in a room with other people with literally no exit, and most likely for all eternity. Cube takes this idea further by putting the characters in a giant cube suspended in nothing (very much like the hell jail scene in Time Bandits— you’d know it if you’d seen it). Inside the Cube is an extensive labyrinth of rooms, and each room has several doors some even on the floors and ceilings. Each room is different yet the same, and the characters along with the audience don’t ever know which way is up or down. As the characters remain longer in the cube personalities under stress appear, some become annoying, some are secretive, some are aggressive, some weak, some silent, some heroic, but each in their own turn is another’s hell. But, as far as hell goes in this film it is not just the people who are hell it is the Cube itself because if you choose the wrong door and enter the wrong room you suffer a grotesque and bloody death. Lastly, Cube never reveals why they are there or what the cube actually is. The characters never know or find out if they are in prison or in hell or in a social experiment, and neither do the audience.

In the echelon of great sci-fi movies Cube is somewhere on the lower middle end. It’s a cool idea, and the design of the cube is awesome, but the acting is pretty bad. It’s not horrific acting just not great acting. In cases like these I can never tell if it was a bad director that didn’t know how to get good scenes from the actors or if it’s just sub-par actors either way the acting is what keeps this film from reaching into the upper echelon of sci-fi.

 

But, I’m not really talking about a film or doing a film review in this post. I’m talking about doors closing and doors opening. In the past few years, I’ve felt my life’s journey has been a bit like the Cube. It was “No Exit” for a while, but then it seemed like I had some options of doors, yet each one I tried to open felt a bit like getting emotionally eviscerated. As each door closed, and had some pendulum swing across the room to cut me in two, I’d turn and find no other door open. I’d stand facing the same exact door. The idea of thinking outside of the box was becoming more and more desperate to me, but I felt creatively stumped as how to move my life experience forward and survive— no, not survive, but to live well. As the third rejection letter from grad school came in I began to think about an alternative plan, a plan b. Once I read the blurb on Irvine’s MFA creative writing page, if you don’t hear from us you didn’t get in (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much) I started making the move towards plan b.

 

Plan B is scarier then Plan A. It has nothing to do with honing my craft of writing— although it could. It has nothing to do with networking with other writers— although I don’t really know if that matters, and it also could end with me networking with writers more like myself. It has nothing to do with getting a masters that tells me “I AM A MASTER WRITER”- but it wont stop me from becoming a better writer. It will give me teaching experience and that is about the only thing it has in common with graduate school. My rejections from my grad programs did not deter me from being a writer. I deter me from being a writer regardless of what I’m trying to achieve. My applying to grad school was not just about becoming a better writer with access to other writers and connections in the writing world it was about opening a goddamn door that went somewhere and led me out of this room. It wasn’t the right door. Even though it is a common door and many people try that door and find it does open and it leads somewhere, it didn’t work for me. Not at this time.

In Cube we find out that the cube is always moving like a Rubik’s cube so even if it is the right door and the right room if you don’t open it at the right time and be quick about going into the room the room will change, and a laser will cut you in half. You off course don’t know when or why the cube moves. Sound like life? The laser is of course a metaphor (I hope).

 

So the door closed once again, but plan b was in action. Three weeks ago, I e-mailed off an application. Last Wednesday, I had an interview over skype, and the following day, Thursday, I was hired. Just like that a new door opened. A door that leads far off to the East farther than I’ve ever gone. I’m nervous about such a huge change and excited for the change for the possibilities, and the challenges, and of course the potential for new stories. In August with just a few bags I will walk through this door that I never saw until a month ago, and once I’m over the threshold, I’ll be working as a literature teacher and leading drama classes in Zhengzhou, China.

There’s more to come. There is more to come.