Monday, March 26, 2007

Long time no see

The sporadic internet access in my apartment makes updating this lovely blog a bit difficult, and whenever I do get internet access on my labtop I am franticly checking various email accounts and using messenger programs so sadly, this update will be hurried.

I also need to note that since I've gotten here and have been (trying) to learn Polish, my ability to type or speak articulate English has gone substantially downhill, and not only am I making more typos, but I often have difficulty figuring out if what I've typed is spelled correctly or not...So there's my disclaimer.

I figure it's about time I post a picture of my school, in all of it's impressive Soviet glory. Behold, the Palace of Culture and Science:

Or, in Polish Palac Kultury i Nauki. It is arguably the ugliest building in Warsaw, which is really saying something, but I think it's kind of cool, and certainly pretty at night. It's also very good for me that there is such a huge landmark because I still get lost in this city at an alarmingly frequent rate. I also know very few street names. These things might be related. Because I'm sort of stealing internet access from a cafe that I'm at right now, I won't type out my own history of the Palace, but instead direct you to good old Wikipedia:
(incidently, Polish is the fourth most frequently used language for Wikipedia. Kind of cool?)

Because my classes here are pretty shitty, I've decided to make the most of my free time and go to a lot of museums and gallaries while I'm here. So far I've been to the Old Jewish Cemetary, the Pawiak Prision Museum, the National Art Gallery, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum. I've been doing a lot of reading about Solidarity, which involves a lot of reading about Marshall law, for my Thesis next year, and combined with my experiences at most of the museums, I've been having nightmares about totalitarianism on a fairly frequent basis. Warsaw is certainly a crazy place to live in while studying history.

Here part of the memorial outside of the Pawiak Prison. The prison was originally used by the Russian during partition, but it's more well known for being the largest German political prison in occupied Poland. 100,000 prisoners were kept here, which was over 10% the population of Warsaw, and 37,000 prisoners were killed

It's certainly a creepy place. The museum was good, tons of information. I had a bit of an interesting experience though, because it's a pretty small museum so curators get really excited when they have visitors. To enter the museum, you walk down 5 steps and then walk about 2 meters to the prison door. I had barely finished with the steps when the door sprung open and 2 older Polish men with questionable dental hygiene opened the door and immediately asked "Polish??" I replied, in Polish, that I was American, and they were overjoyed to have such a visitor in their humble museum. They talked to me for a good 10 minutes about why I was in Poland, telling me that Poland is where my heart is, that they were happy I was here, etc. There was a bit of physical contacting, as they kept patting me on the shoulder. It was kind of uncomfortable, but my friend Nadine who visited the museum a few weeks before had a similar experience.

The old Jewish Cemetary is really close to my apartment and it enormous. I spent about an hour there and you could spend much more time walking around because it goes on and on, and once you enter the gates you are essentially in a forest.

As you can see, Warsaw is really an upbeat place! Prisons, cemetaries, uprisings oh my! I am really having a good time though, and it's a very interesting place. The other people here are great; I'm enjoying being the token American in a European exchange program and getting to bust up some American myths.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Over the River and Through the Woods

This weekend Dorotka and I went to visit Babcia, and we had a lovely, if exhausting time. My grandmother just turned 80 years old, which is a little less than twice the combined age of my cousin and I, yet I think she has more energy than both of us combined. What with living through a World War, Cold War, and totalitarian state, she is probably the toughest woman I know. The fact that she still grows most of her own food, keeps her floors scrubbed spotless, and spends the winters sewing only support my claims.

So Friday morning I met Dorotka at Centralny, the main train station, and we bought our tickets and sandwiches and managed to snag window seats on the train. I started reading Life of Pi on the train (thanks Ben!) and really like it so far, but I’ve been warned that the ending is sad. We had a transfer in Olstyn, but didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes for our train, so it was a good trip.

Ketrzyn, the town that Babcia lives in and that my mom grew up in, is really beautiful. There are a lot of old buildings made of red brick with red tiled roofs. And Ketryn is in the Masury region of Poland, which is the land of a thousand lakes. There is a beautiful, large lake in the center of town, and it was still frozen over from winter. There are other small lakes and streams throughout the town, and as you can see from this view of the field behind Babcia’s flat, there are lots of beautiful fields. I have a thing for hay stacks and farm land, so I think it’s pretty gorgeous.

If there is one truth that can be universally acknowledged about Polish grandmothers, it is that they like to make sure their family is well fed. We spent Friday night cooking and eating dinner. We made nalesnicki, which are Polish crepes filled with ricotta cheese and topped with cream and Babcia’s homemade jams. We made these nalesnicki with woda gasowana (carbonated water) so they were nice and light.

Babcia made Dorotka and I matching aprons, so we looked quite awesome and put together while we were cooking. She made them from the front and back of an old dress. The lady sure knows how to do some impressive clothing reconstruction!

On Saturday we went shopping for an arm chair, followed by a trip to the cemetery and then we came back to the apartment for more cooking. Here we are on the walk back-there is a path that goes from Babcia’s apartment to the town center.

A lot more cooking happened on Saturday, and I will post a recipe for Polish Pickle Soup later. But the real highlight of the weekend was Saturday night when Dorotka and I began poking around the many boxes and drawers full of treasures that my grandma has stored over the years. Babcia got into it herself, and at one point the three of us were all running around her flat trying on fashions that were at least 30 year old, and attempting to determine whether enough skilled tugging and pulling could make these (polyester) riches a.) fit and b.) fashionable. I certainly could have used the shrewd and imaginative eyes of my dear roommates, but I think I was sucessful in distinguishing between crazy awesome and just crazy clothes.

And finally, here is a picture of the best dressed Polish Babcia I have come across in my one month here:

She's cute, right?

Friday, March 2, 2007


Yesterday was my first real Polish class here at school, and it went pretty well. The class was fairly easy and was mostly a review of what I learned over the summer-they use the same book and are only halfway through where we got at Jagellonia. After class I talked to the coordinator about trying out the next level, because I really want to improve my Polish. I've been kind of stressed out/uncomfortable about my classes here, because it's a Political Science program and I study History, so I can't quite figure out which classes to take or how many. I feel like if I have to suffer through classes about Russian Politics and Diplomacy, my Polish better get better. I had my friend Zuza come with me to talk to the coordinator, and when they realized that I could understand everything they were saying in Polish, they sent me to the top "conversation class." There was only one other student there, who was very nice and helpful, but it's hard being in a conversation class when I can't actually speak much Polish. But the other classes still seem to be stuck on the basic "Hello my name is__, how are you?" so this will be good, especially if I study the more basic grammar and vocab on my own. I hope.

My other classes are easy-it's actually kind of ridiculous. Most teachers don't require attendance, have oral final exams, and dont' give out homework or require reading. I'm taking one class that has an 8 page final and 15 minute class presenation, and students are blown away by how much work that is. Classes only meet for an hour and a half a week, but the typical class load is 8 classes. I'm taking 7 classes and world dance, which is pretty awesome so far.

Because the school here is so small and because there arent' any other American exchange students I'm considered an Erasmus student, which is great because the Erasmus students have organized get togethers and trips throughout Poland. Tonight we're having a group dinner, then tomorrow I will hopefully see Dorotka. Other than that, my plans for the weekend include trying to find someplace where I can buy a pillow and extra towels (which is way harder than it sounds).