Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring is Gone, Harmonicas, and Language Barriers

Spring was here for 3 days. Now it's gone. Yesterday it started snowing, then it melted during the day. Last night, the snow fell again, and it's starting to melt again today. Who knows how long this could go on for! Poland is crazy. I just hope all the birds, bees, and flowers that were fluttering the in breeze last week have found some warm shelter.

Bhadri has taken up the harmonica. He's getting pretty good at it, and it's only been a week or two. He figured out how to play "Amazing Grace" all by himself, and has pretty much mastered a train noise (it's really cool!). He downloaded a few song guides from the internet, including "Oh Susanna," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and "How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down."

I've been thinking a lot about the role of language. This so-called language barrier. It's something we encounter a lot here. We teach our language, first of all, but also we struggle with not knowing the local language everyday. When we go to the store to buy food, when we walk Booster and an old lady with her own dog stops us to chat, when we want to know the weather on tv, when we want to know what party won the last election, when we want to know where we're going while on the's always a challenge. I always thought that language is a communication tool--that we'd be better off knowing the language of the country where we lived. But I'm not so sure now.

Because we don't know the words, we can only observe people's expressions, movements, and intonation. When we go to the store and say "dzien dobre" (good day), the shop workers smile and give us a hearty welcome back. It's a game now to order cheese or coffee from behind the counter, and it's smiles all around. When we meet another dog walker on the sidewalk, we end up giggling at all of our inability to speak, and leave each other in broad smiles. Is this not communication? I'm starting to think it's a much more pure form of communication than using the correct grammar and essentially using each other as a means to an end. It's always an experience in itself everytime we encounter someone that doesn't speak English. We are all aware and conscious in these encounters, and it feels authentic.

My Little Sister

My sister Molly got her dress for the wedding the other day. She's my maid of honor. So she took a picture in her dorm room and emailed it to me to see what I thought. First of all, the dress is great. But when I looked at that picture I realized, maybe for the first time, that my sister is grown-up and she is gorgeous! She's always been a cutie (especially in her eye-patch and magnifying glass glasses days, but also in her high-waisted/highwater jeans pre-teen days, too--sorry Moll, had to say it). But I didn't see the same curly headed, silicon snorting, confetti printed glasses wearing baby sister of my childhood.

Molly has a spark about her. She glows when she smiles. When she laughs, you can't avoid laughing with her. Every move, every face she makes, is so expressive. She is, at the same time, brilliantly funny and truly insightful. She uses her time to help create a better world in small ways. And she doesn't know she's beautiful, which of course lends her charms that much more power.

That's my little sister. All growed up.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blame The Boss

Once a month at International House Katowice we have Conversation Club – a get together where teachers and students hang out, drink beer and talk. Grant, one of the 25 or so IH teachers, planned a successful pub quiz and sing song of Molly Malone and Wild Rover (complete with pounding on the table) in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. And once the quiz winners were announced and they had received their IH pocket calendars, the pub pretty much cleared out. Only a few of us from the school and a guy at the counter in a Guinness Top Hat made of foam remained.

Ready for my second pint, I headed to the bar and introduced myself to Mark, the guy in the Guinness hat. Clearly well beyond his second pint, Mark was a 45-year-old businessman from London. He was short and round in the middle. Sweaty gray hair peered from beneath his hat and stuck to his neck. Mark had relocated to Poland five years ago, he told me, to teach English and start a chain selling leather-cleaning products at local malls. Short on specifics, Mark had a quick mouth and a love of music from before I was born.

“You like Springsteen?” he asked. “Na. A little too much denim for me,” I replied. “If you ever get the chance, go to his concert -- when he sings it looks like his neck is going to explode,” Mark admired as he finished his beer and switched to Long Island Iced Tea.

Not halfway through his Long Island, Mark had already professed his love for David Bowie, Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles, Phil Collins, and Elvis. And before I knew it he was once again talking about The Boss.

“It’s amazing.” Mark continued. “I said to myself as soon as he started Born in the USA -- by the way he always starts with that song, which I don’t particularly care for -- I said that’s it. He’s fucking done. No way he can sing another note. He’s done. But he did. And he sang for four hours. The entire time his neck was …” Mark trailed off gesturing to his neck, his hands on either side, miming swelling. He was clearly impressed.

“Man, sounds like you really like Springsteen,” I said.
“I tell ya, he sang this great version of American.”

And before the ten of us left in the pub knew what was happening, Mark was five bars into a 6-minute performance. And to his credit, as drunk as he was, he knew every word of that song. Feeling partially responsible and a little embarrassed about the impromptu performance, I stayed perched on my stool with an uncomfortable grin. Mark was strutting and stroking the bar. He had clearly done this before.

I invited Mark over to the table, where the rest of the group was sitting, in an effort to avoid another outburst. After a brief discussion over the relative little value of music being produced today as opposed to 30 years ago (at least that was Mark’s position), we all grabbed a taxi, minus Mark, and headed up town. I’m convinced he hung around until closing time or he fell asleep.

Either way, I’m just glad he wasn’t a Madonna fan. I don’t know what would have happened if he had chosen to sing Like a Virgin.

A day trip to Pszczyna

This past Saturday we visited Pszczyna (pronounced pish-chin-a), a small market town, its origins dating back to the 11th century. In 1847 after centuries of changing ownership, it became the property of the powerful Hochberg family of Prussia. According to our guidebook, Pszczyna is home to “a perfectly restored palace that could have jumped straight out of Germany.” Sounded good to us. So we checked it out.

We strolled the town and popped into the palace for a self-guided tour. Beth told them we were teachers at the ticket window and got us a 50% discount. This teaching thing has its perks. The palace was awesome. Loads of antiques, hand-carved interiors and furniture, high ceilings with huge crystal chandeliers, 30-foot tall mirrors, probably 500 pairs of antlers to show off the great hunts that had taken place here, muralled ceilings, and a real feeling that we were getting a peek into the recent past. Here are some photos I was able to smuggle out. Sorry about the occasional blurring. There were no photos aloud inside the palace so I was forced to shoot quickly and hide the evidence.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spring is in the Air

The other day, I cracked our kitchen window open to let in a bit more sun in for Booster. And to my shock, a bee flittered around the opening for a moment and buzzed off into the distance, as if to say "hello, I'm here and I've brought Spring!"

The sun has been shining every morning for at least a few hours. And Booster's gotten comfortable with sitting on his blanket in the window and soaking up the rays. Bhads and I are loving it, too! We didn't have much of a winter, but when the sun returns it sure is noticeable. It's like people on the streets are walking around with Zippity Do-Dah playing in the background.

On Tuesday, the three of us went to a coffee shop around the corner from our apartment called Amader. We're not sure what "Amader" means, but it sounds like how the British say "Armada," so that's what I think of everytime I hear it. We had the place to ourselves. So we picked a table by the window, the one with the most sunlight shining through, and plopped down on the leather sofa. Booster arranged himself on my sweater that was laid out on the wide window sill and watched the passers-by as he showed off his pretty belly. Bhads and I had coffees and talked about life, while children on their way to a field trip skipped past, pointing at the pup and laughing. It was a beautiful day.

We're thinking about taking a day-trip to Pszczyna this weekend. Maybe on Saturday. It's a small town, outfitted with a palace and royal gardens...and we love exploring the area as much as we can. And, I'm just excited to have a cup of coffee outside in the sun--the street cafes will be opening soon! On Sunday, I think we'll try to go back to Auschwitz for the day. We went last October, before our CELTA's started, but we feel a need to go back. This time, we won't take a tour, we want to just walk around and feel the silence. And it IS something you can feel. There's a new Jewish history museum in Oswiecim (Osh-vee-on-cheem: the Polish name for the town) and we'd like to see that too. We're going to start taking weekend trips more often. We still need to go to Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk, and the Bielowiza National Forest near Belarus. We're starting to plan a trip to Lvov, Ukraine, during the Easter/Passover week. And, of course, we will keep you posted!

Sending you sun and smiles from Katowice!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Let's Talk Fashion (Bhad)

Let’s talk fashion. As I’ve come to realize learning English is something of a status symbol over here. In that same vein, so is wearing English – shirts that have English words on them are sold and worn everywhere. And what I find hilarious, especially since I’m teaching English, is that it doesn’t matter whether the shirts make any sense grammatically, conceptually or often artistically. These images are of a few of my favorites. I have done my best to recreate the original designs that I’ve seen.

In case you can’t read the fine print of the shirts, here’s what they say:
1) Wildness
2) City Warriors; Los Angeles Washington New York; Watching the streets and keeping surveillance by
3) New York; 1998; Motorcycle Brotherhood
4) 22 Mystical; 46-LYG Department; General Air Force; M-2 Operations
5) D/7 135-92; Silver Sounds; Summer Wonderland

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Chiquita Banana!

I am about to head home after a good, long day at school. I've been sick for the past 5 days, and today's my first day back. It was nice to laze around the apartment with Booster, read some good books, and eat my fair share of homemade apple crumble. But, it's back to business now. And two day work weeks are mighty fine by me!

I wanted to blog about my class that just got out an hour ago. It's a group of ten little 9 yr olds at a satellite school about 30 minutes outside of Katowice. They are the jewels of my Thursday! Each one is bursting with personality and enthusiasm. Some have no social awareness, and others I'm convinced are old sages. They can be so serious and focused one minute, poring over every detail of their work, and the next they'll be slung over their chairs backwards with their tongues hanging down their chins tapping their heels together and clicking their pens. It's great!

So at the end of my lesson we played pictionary with new vocab they'd learned today. There were two teams, pretty much evenly split. The first of each team had a marker (with which to draw on the white board), and the other team members would guess what are the drawing. First team to guess gets the point. Okay, you also get the point. I always ask them: what's your team name. It's more fun than Team A and Team B, and they come up with all kinds of wonderful names: Dog (not dogs), Gorilla, Mouse, Skittles. This week, my star student Mieszko (pron: Mee-ish-ko) wanted Chiquita Banana! Soon after, the whole class is muttering: Chiquita Banana, Chiquita Banana. I couldn't help but giggle. It was Chiquita Banana versus Skittles for the pictionary championship.

We played pictionary for about 5 or 10 minutes (Chiquita Banana won), when I had a revelation. Why not teach them the famous Chiquita Banana song that I sang for hours on end as a child? We had 5 minutes left in class, and that was plenty of time to teach them the lyrics and movements. So we all stood in a circle, they repeated after me:

Chiquita Banana.
Chiquita Banana.
You peel it to the left,
You peel it to the right,
You open up the center and--
UMPH!--You take a bite!

At the "UMPH!" we all jumped up and landed with a big thud (opting for a less grotesque body movement of the original). Needless to say, they ate it up! Pun intended. We did the song and movements 5 times until it was time to go. They were all singing it on the way out the door. Now that's an English lesson! Haha, more like an American lesson.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Morning Coffee

My Bros, Josh, emailed me a short story he wrote about a month ago. It told the story of the events of an unusual day – really a few hours out of that day – as they unfolded, with vivid detail. It inspired me. So, Bro, here is my story. It is set in Wroclaw. Bethanie and I visited the beautiful city over our winter break a few weeks ago. As I type this it is 1:35 on a Sunday afternoon and I am listening to Wolf Parade on ITunes. The sky is grey and the roof drips with what’s left of the rain that has come and gone.

Morning Coffee

I took a 10-minute walk from the Wroclaw Rynek (town square), zigzagging 5 blocks southwest. This was my third time in as many days to stop into this pub. But it had a different feeling this visit. It was 10 in the morning and only a few laptop users had staked out seats near the side row of windows in the back. Two evenings before we were lucky to get a table, but now I had my pick. After a quick consideration of the layout, who was already sitting where, how much light I would need to read my two-day-old copy of the The Guardian, where I could stow my umbrella, and which tables provided the most overall comfort, I opted for a corner spot – a round wooden thing, dinged and scratched, wobbly from years of use, four feet across and just to my liking.

The pub still smelled of lamp oil the staff used to fuel the tens of tea lights that lined the sills and shelves. The floor was hard wood in the front and brick from the bar in the middle of the room back. It seemed as if an old alley had been given a roof and bar. There was still a hand pump that was just taller than me built into the floor. Our first night here the room was filled with silent smiles when someone tripped over its base on the way to the couches at the back. Other than a smacked palm and a small case of embarrassment, he was fine.

I grabbed a kawa biala from the bar and spread out my paper on the table. I skipped from page to page looking for where I had left off. The top two stories of the day couldn’t have been more different. Readers would find that Baghdad had suffered four car bomb blasts during a 15-minute moment of silence for the anniversary of a similar attack one year ago. They might also be surprised to see that the Dixie Chicks took home highest honors at the Grammy Awards, winning for best song, album and record. The two stories fill the majority of the first and second pages, respectively, along with a few other eye catchers like “Cadbury Faces Court Over Food Poisoning” and “Confessions of a Dinosaur,” an in-depth look a the man of the ’70s.

As I read, I work hard to ration my 6 oz. of latte. I realize I’ve only been here 15 minutes tops, and already I’ve enjoyed half of it. At the risk of ending up with a cold cup of coffee, which inevitably happens, I slow my drinking pace to stretch my 5.50 pln into 45 minutes of pleasure. The woman at the table next to me is enjoying her coffee with a piece of apple cake and a Polish women’s magazine. She is clearly far less concerned than me about conserving her purchase. She races from page to page, apparently mostly enjoying the pictures, while opting to wash her cake down with big gulps of coffee rather than the faithful chew and swallow technique that I usually employ. In less time than it has taken me to read three more articles, my favorite being “Police Impound Illegal ‘Mafia Town’ Built on Broccoli Fields,” a little piece hot off the wire from Naples, my neighbor is gone and I have the corner of the pub again all to myself, upping the pleasure of my reading that much more.

Soon, however, a couple sits down at another table within arms length of me. At the bar, she orders a coffee and a cold-cut sandwich and he a pint of Zywiec. In a brief moment of worry I lose track of time, assuming that it must be early afternoon for him to be having a beer, and I’ve probably missed my train. I check my watch. It’s 11 am. Any earlier and I might think a beer was out of bounds. But 11 is within earshot of noon and for some people it’s already lunchtime. I’ve never been one to frown at a midday pint myself, and I’m reminded of Bethanie’s and my trip to Prague in 2002.

Legend has it that it is Czech law that every adult of legal age should be able to afford beer. And based on my experience this could well be true. Beer in Prague can run as little as $.50 for a half liter. That’s cheaper than any other beverage, even water. So it was there in a small Czech point-to-order diner that I found myself taking the budget option at 10 am and having a pint with breakfast. As we ambled about the city that afternoon my gate was clearly effected – a little slower and lazier. Since then I’ve always opted for coffee or juice with my eggs and generally prefer to save the Pilsner Urquell for later in the day.

But now as I finish off the complimentary chocolate that accompanied by coffee, I’ve got a close eye on the door, expecting Beth to rush in fro the downpour at any moment. Soon she does and after a hug and kiss hello we are out the door, on our way to pick up Booster and our bags from Hotel Savoy and then head to the station for the 12:05 to Katowice. Huddled close under the umbrella we hurry off, sharing stories of our mornings and looking forward to home.