Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

Beth, Booster and I all hope that you have a great holiday season back home. We have a two-week Christmas break. And since we usually spend this with our families who we miss so much, we thought we would get out of Katowice and travel a little. So we are now in Sanok, Poland, a town of about 45,000 in SE Poland. It is a very charming town surrounded by hills and forests. We are waking early to take advantage of the 8 hours of daylight that this time of year allows for, and doing loads of walking. Today we went to a Skansen, a local outdoor museum featuring Polish dwellings from the past few centuries. It was very interesting. The best part was the two timber churches. They were ornately adorned inside and have beautiful wooden shingle exteriors. We will post photos when we get back.

Beth and I did have our own small Christmas Eve feast, featuring Smoked salmon and soft olive cheese on ciabata bread, served with sides of cashews, carrot, beet and cabbage salads. We started the feast with a shot of vodka and washed the meal down with hot chocolate and local beer with lemon. DELICIOUS! We are about to return to our room and finish it off with cake and more hot cocoa. We picked up a thermos before our adventures and it is saving our lives.

We will be in Sanok on Christmas day, but then plan to shoot off somewhere else. We were originally planning Slovakia, but now we are leaning towards staying in Poland. It is tricky this time of year. There are few tourists and everything shuts down on Christmas and the day after. And since today is Sunday, everything was shut down today as well. But we are having a wonderful time to say the least. Of course we wish we could be spending Christmas back in the states torn between Tulsa and Austin as usual with our families. But maybe next year. This year my Grandma Betty made it into Austin from California. I am sorry I missed you, Grandma. But I'm glad I got to see you a few months ago when I visited Cali.

Anyways, we love all of you guys. And we are thinking of you in between our long walks and vodka shots. By the way, if you're wondering what we got eachother for Christmas... we are planning on having lots of fun travel adventures together and exchanging bites of cake while we're at it. Love ya. We'll post soon.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Jewish Poland

Poland has, at the same time, a very rich and tragic Jewish history. The holocaust's Jewish victims total over 3 million in Poland; and although first the Nazis and then the Communists devastated Jewish communities across the country, a few remnants of this past-life remain. Only traces are left of Jewish culture here, but the traces compound into something larger and slightly tangible.

Matza (maca) is displayed in storefront windows, challah (chalka) sells on bread shop shelves, six-sided stars wrapped in garland and lights adorn the tops of lamp posts in a few streets in the city center, the elderly walk slowly on the sidewalks and I can't help but think of what they saw, what they know, and what they pretend to forget.

We've taken a few pictures, mostly in Krakow, of Judaica we've spotted. A stained glass window in Tempel Synogogue in Kazimierz, an old building with paint, stars, and Yiddish flaking off its walls, our friend Alan and Bhads at Alef (an amazingly tasty Jewish restaurant in hot chocolate of my life!), the musicians in a Jewish music concert we went to in Krakow, and a Star of David decoration on Wawelska street in the city center.

It's the holiday season, which means that the city is singing Christmas-Christmas-Christmas everywhere. But it's hard not to consider what life here in Katowice, and across Poland, was like 70 years ago...60 years ago...50 years ago this time of year. Families could have been celebrating Hanukkah in their homes, maybe even without their curtains drawn. Then, without reason, there was silence. The silence is still here, but it's a different kind. The culture here has not completely vanished...but then again, how could it?

1st Conversation Club at IH Katowice

Our school has lots of clubs: Kids Club, Help Club, Conversation Club. Although we're still learning what many of these clubs are all about, we feel like we've gained a decent understanding of Conversation Club.

About once a month, the adult students are invited to a local pub to hang out and speak English with their teachers in an informal setting. None of my students showed up, but I only had one class that applied...and I forgot to remind them to come! The large majority of my classes are "Younger Learner" classes, kids. It's challenging, but I really enjoy the little ones. Bhadri doesn't have any kids classes, but he does have quite a few late-teen classes and a couple adult classes, too. So we went to the Convo Club with our teacher friends and sat at a table with more teacher friends and a few of their students. Long story short: out came the vodka. At most events in Poland, people start ordering rounds of vodka for everyone at the table. Everyone wants a turn to be generous and return the favor, which means there is way too much vodka for any non-Poles' health. Na Strovie!

Here are some pictures of us with our buddies Grant, Bozena, Lewis, and Mirte.

Funny Things You Might Find in Poland

1. Tile mosaics of Pope John Paul II on the wall of the Polytechnic Institute.
2. "Ensalata Verde," or green salad, that consist entirely of several sheets of iceberg lettuce.
3. Political posters with glasses and mustaches drawn on them
4. Political posters advocating some guy pasted next to fraudulent political posters condemning the same guy. Kudos to PhotoShop.
5. Paintings of a puppy on a tile next to an electricity or water meter.
6. Musicians dressed up in traditional garb, playing outside of United Colors of Benetton and other modern European boutiques.
7. Big, inflated puppies next to big, inflated dog food ads that, unbeknownst to Pedigree, look like the dog food killed the poor, poofy puppy.
8. McDonalds McFlurries, Subway Cokes, and St. Edward's University shirts on display in the mall.
9. A United Colors of Benetton van advertising a new line of condoms. What's up with UCoB?
10. Shoe posters boasting "street style."
11. Menus that read: Potatoes dumping in mushroom sauce.

Home Sweet Home...again

We are settling in to life in Katowice. It's not Krakow, it's different. Although we do love Krakow, Katowice feels more liveable. People in stores here are friendlier, and will start up conversations with you if they recognize you from previous visits. Some of the local shops are cheesy and feel very Eastern, which is lovely b/c Krakow is so cosmopolitan. There is this one restaurant a few blocks from our school called City Rock; the decor is American diner style and they have cars and motorcycles and guitars bolted to the walls. Just think Hard Rock knock-off. It's really funny! There are a few malls and a new tram station that give it the air of a big Western city, but then there's the Spodek. The Spodek is a massive, flying saucer shaped concrete building (and the funny thing is that Spodek means saucer in Polish, so they totally know). It has a good pub in the bottom (maybe the alien entrance section if you were watching a sci-fi movie), and it makes us laugh when we see it. Unless you're willing to spend a pretty penny, most of the apt buildings are very Soviet. There are some that seem to never stop in any direction, they're just built for thousands of people. But the city is really endearing. There's a flower and fruit market that's open every day but Sunday down in the center, and delicious bakeries and chocolate shops that line the pedestrian area. Ooh, and another nice little shop sits right on one of the most beautiful pedestrian zones in the city: my favorite wedding dress shop. I went to try on dresses about a week ago and found the perfect dress. I went back two days later (after obsessing about it constantly for the two days previous) and bought the dress! So, we're officially getting married now. Unfortunately, I can't post pics of the dress on our blog b/c Bhadri will, naturally, see them and it would spoil the whole affair. We've agreed that he won't see the dress or know anything about the dress until our big day. It's kinda fun!

We feel like we really struck gold with our apt. Say goodbye to the days of the rickety twin bed we had to share, the sporadically working heaters, and the poop-covered pigeon perch of a porch (oooh, alliteration is fun!). We are living the high life: fully furnished and remodelled flat with almost everything you could ever want. We even have a tree in our living room! And Booster is starting to feel very at home (hence the pillow in the bookshelf), and we even rigged up a seat for him by the window so he can stare intensely at the passers-by. It's really great to come home to such a warm and comfy place, with our boy cozed up in his blankie on the window sill.

The pictures are a mix of photos inside our apt and the view from one of our windows. We're happy to get to share them with you!

A Very Krakow Christmas

Although we've deserted charismatic Krakow, we can't help blogging about it. The days before we left the city were filled with eating up all the food in our fridge and packing away our belongings, but they were also filled with as much Polish culture as we could squeeze into those hectic hours.

The Krakow Christmas market is a joy. We realized why Poles seem to love Christmas so much--it's b/c Santa and his real reindeer really do make the trip from up North, and the edible delicacies on display are out of this world. I know I go on and on about the oscipyk--the goat cheese from the mountains--but it really is worth going on about. First of all, there are 4 huts stationed around the rynek (square) that look like oversized barrels. Well, they are oversized barrels. But people sit inside these big barrels and serve you your choice of hot mead or mulled wine. I highly recommend the mulled wine. Why hasn't America caught on to the mulled wine yet?! Get with it America. So you grab a steaming cup of wino gzone (the Polish name for this delicious beverage), and move on to the cheese stand. Here, they will serve up a dripping, hot, roasted nougat of oscipyk from right off the grill and give you a dollup of raspberry jam on top. They're 2 zloty a piece, which is a bit expensive (relatively), but I kept going back...and back...and back. I think my lunch that day consisted of 4 or 5 nougats of cheese and, of course, my wino gzone. Could it get any better? Bhadri says yes. The big log of meat at the end of his fork is real-deal Polish sausage: kielbasa. He was just about as excited about the kielbasa as I was about my oscipyk--and that's saying something. Once you get your food (and you might want to grab a few warm, fresh, honey-roasted pumpkin seeds or almonds from the stand next door), you can make yourself at home on any of the wooden benches set up around the market exterior. It's freezing cold, and you're having a hot picnic lunch in Europe's biggest and grandest square. Seriously, folks, it's something special.

Oh, and how could I forget? The live reindeer. They are the cutest, albeit awkward, animals (Booster=exception) I think I've ever come face to face with. I stood there and stared at them for minutes upon minutes. Bhadri had to drag me away. They have the largest hooves, they just look too big for the rest of their bodies. You know, like big-dog puppies when they're all feet! And they really didn't seem to mind hanging out with Santa and getting their [illegal] photos taken all day. Hence the "no photos" sign. Ok, I know it's unethical or whatever, but they wanted to sell poster sized professional photos in lieu. Come on. Besides, I think one of the reindeer winked at my after I snapped the shot!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

First messages from Katowice

We are now living in Katowice. You probably already know that. The city is more Polish, if that makes sense, than Krakow. Krakow is a little tired of the tourists and is more of "global". You always hear English when you're walking down the streets and things. It's touristy because it's so beautiful, so that's the price you pay. Katowice = less beatiful, less touristy, less English. This makes it very interesting. I haven't talked to many people outside of International House (that's the school I teach at), but the people I have talked to are very friendly.

Last night I stopped by the local shop. It's like the size of a 7-11 without all of the outrageous prices and junkfood. Well, they do have their fair share of junk food, but also a lot of nice little things that you would only find at HEB in austin: all kinds of fruit, red wine vinegar, juices, 5 liter water jugs, really good French mustard. Not French's yellow mustard. That doesn't exist in this universe. :) I'm talking gourmet Le Francaise stuff. That should give you an idea.

So I stopped by on the way home from the mall. (I had to pick up a pair of "trousers" and some dog food for the boy. I mean the trousers were for me.) So I stopped by and bought some water. Then later I returned and told them that my girlfriend (except I said wife because I don't know girlfriend in Polish) sent me. To be fair I didn't say much. I just waved the list I had in the air and said "Moya Zona" which means my wife. Then I made the little face-down scissor sign for walking. And the shop keepers (a husband and wife I presume in their mid-40s) got the idea. They are so kind. I've been in there a few times and so by now they know my face and understand that I only know like a dozen Polish words. So we smile a lot and have fun with it. I learned how to say "the same" in Polish. The husband pointed at my garlic in the basket and pointed at some garlic powder and said "toe samo". So now I know one more phrase. And from there I asked for seven cookies from the bulk stack which they thought was so hillarious.She threw her head back with laughter, looked at her husband and said "seven" (in English). I guess they were laughing because I never order by the kilogram. I always ask for a specific number. That way I know exactly what I'm getting. I know how to convert the kilogram to pounds but it's just easier to ask for 10 slices of meat or whatever instead.

Then I managed to understand that he was telling me "you teach me English, I teach you Polish." So that's our lose agreement. When I stop in we will be sure to exchange a few words. Yesterday I taught them "very good," holding up my end of the agreement. Anyway, we had so much fun that he gave my a candy bar to give to Bethanie (moya zona) as a gift from the shop. "Gratis" he said and I smiled and took it home.

Those are the interactions that I really enjoy. So, other than that, works good. I taught three 90-minute lessons on Monday. That was interesting. Actually, they went very well. So I was pleased. I've got two more tomorrow. And once I get up to a full load I will have like three per day 4 days a week and a couple more on the fifth day. It's quite a lot when you consider planning time, but I'm enjoying it so far. And so is Bethanie.

The staff is cool. With us there are 24 teachers here. About half are native speakers and the other are Poles. So that keeps it interesting. We went out for a pint the other day with many of them. And that night we were invited over to another teaching couple's flat for dinner. They made us fajitas! And I can honestly say that the fajitas made by this Scottish couple, Lewis and Mirta, was the best Mexican food I've had so far in Europe. So that was fun.