Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas in Poland - Wigilia = The Vigil

In times past and today, for Poles, Christmas Eve was/is a time of family gathering and reconciliation. More so in the past, it was also a night of magic: Animals are said to talk in a human voice and people have the power to tell the future. The belief was born with our ancestors who claimed that Dec. 24 was a day to mark the beginning of a new era. It was bolstered by sayings such as, "As goes Christmas Eve, goes the year." Hoping for a good 12 months, everyone was polite and generous to one another and forgave past grievances.

Today, few treat the old traditions seriously, but some survive as family fun. "Maidens" interested in their marital future and older people, who try to predict next year's weather based on the sky's aura between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night (Jan. 6), sometimes cling to past 'pagan in nature' superstitions. Some Scandinavian cultures have a similar pagan past.


Today, Wigilia (vee-GEEL-yah), which literally means "vigil," or waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus, is considered more important than Christmas Day itself. When I lived in Poland, I celebrated with my family who live in Silesia. Which has a somewhat different tradition that other regions in Poland. Yet, in all Poland, the custom of gifts given to children happens on St. Nicholas Day Dec. 6.  

Are there presents given on Christmas Eve? Yes, but not on Christmas Day, there is no Santa Claus coming in through the chimney. So, who is responsible for the gifts received on Christmas Eve? In Silesia, the lesser region, where I celebrated Wigilia, it was/is the baby Jesus or his messenger, a small angel, that brings the presents and, since they are invisible, their presence is signaled by the ringing of a bell. The children are supposed to remain silent during Christmas Eve dinner so that the gift givers would not be afraid to enter the house.

Now, in greater Poland, where my grandmother's family was/is from the tradition is a bit different.  In the region of Greater Poland ( Wielkopolska, Poznań ) the Starman (a man with a gwiazdor (star) gives the gifts to the children. The Starman is not as jovial and kind as St. Nicholas -- he first threatens the children with a beating with a wooden birch, but then relents and opens a sack of presents to be passed around. The tradition of the Starman is very old indeed. It is speculated it came to Poland from Germany through the so-called Weihnachtsmann.


In Silesia, the Christmas Eve dinner is splendid.  Poles enjoy more than a few courses. Beginning with two kinds of soup.  First, was chicken soup called Rosol or a mushroom soup with small square pasta, and then followed by beet root soup with small pierogi filled with mushrooms. This was followed by two kinds of pierogi: Russian (potato/onion) and mushroom. Once that course finished, we were served fried fish (Carp) with fried mushrooms (dried and reconstituted). Also, on the table was a sweet bread to go with fish 'meatballs',  and there was fish in gelatin, and even herring in olive oil with fresh lemon slices and black pepper corns. Besides the fish meatballs, what I also found to be very good was a hot succotash of cabbage with chick peas/lima beans. The Christmas Eve beverage was a smoked fruit compote (warm punch/juice). For desert there was fruit and nut cheesecake and a poppy seed porridge with nuts and raisins.

Believe me, this was very strange to me the first time I experienced Wigilia - Christmas Eve dinner in Poland. However, the beauty of it soon came into my heart and has stayed in my heart ever since. It is the anticipation of the Christ, the Holy Spirit the Son of God's arrival on earth that is truly profound and found in the Polish Christmas celebration. 

Most Poles go to Midnight Mass called Pasterka, "the Mass of the Shepherds" to commemorate the shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn baby Jesus.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thank Goodness for the Fall of Communism, ???

 In 2013, I read an article in the Economist. It said that a nation's cuisine can  provides a chronology of its sociocultural history. They declared as an example, Poland, for instance as being a good example. The 40 years of communism Poland endured by Poles changed their food consumption. Communism tried to do to the national cuisine what it did to so much else and reduced it to the lowest common denominator: uniform and bland stodge characterized by poor ingredients, low standards and low expectations. So, in this respect, thank goodness for the fall of communism.
In the 12 years I spent living there, I can tell you that in the heart of Poles, their favorite homemade dishes were not forgotten. It was proved when in the early years of post communism, western fast food and processed foods could not enter the market simply because Polish women would not buy it. They wanted to cook again, to taste again. In the years that followed communism one enthusiastic chef at one of Warsaw's five-star hotels talked about  how he wanted to bring "proper" Polish food, not just to foreign guests but also to Poles. He said, "to find real Polish food you have to look at pre-war cookbooks," he said. In those books, he explained, you realize that Polish food was deeply regional, and what passed for a meat cutlet, for example, in one region was completely different elsewhere".
Thankfully and maybe to some surprisingly that even though Poland experienced the Western fast food invasion and big box stores, a generation of younger Poles has been breathing new life into Polish food, dusting down old and long-forgotten recipes, and happily blowing away the almost nationalistic conservatism that surrounded food by introducing new ingredients and cooking styles.
There is a food revolution now gripping Poland. One finds cooks, both professional and amateur, who have traveled, seen what the world has to offer on a plate and discovered what is both right and wrong with Polish food. Because of that, and mostly because of the long gone communism, Poland now has an army of farmers and small food producers bringing original and, very often, organic produce to the table.
Not so long ago cheese in Poland was either żółty or biały (literally yellow or white) and that was pretty much it. Now a trip to one of the growing number of farmers' markets in the country will confront a shopper with a huge choice of locally produced cheese. At the same time the average Pole is becoming more discerning in their taste, able to buy better quality produce and also eager to break away from the refectory-standard food that dominated Polish cuisine for decades. This has resulted in a plethora of new Polish cookbooks being published. Even Anne Applebaum, an acclaimed historian and the wife of Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, has written her own volume of Polish recipes.
Ironically, the good aspect of communism is that a lot of Polish farmland today can be categorized as organic having no chance during communism to be polluted by harsh fertilizer or soil erosion by years of cultivating with heavy machinery.

 *a blend of my experiences in Poland along with views taken from the observations of the Economist author

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Grazing in Poland Applies to Animals

Grazing in the US means snacking all day long. While in Poland applies to animals only. Eating is still seen as a celebration there, a time for family to come together and share a meal. I learned how to cook and eat in eastern Europe. Though variety of food was limited even in the late 90's and early 2000s, Polish families dined on soups, potatoes and pork, and plenty of sausages (dried and smoked). My favorite Polish mom - Ania Bieniecka was and still is a great homemaker and cook. She could come home after a full day of work and whip up a three course dinner in nothing flat. Soup was the starter and then the main meal of meat and potatoes and a vegetable side and lastly a simple fruit dessert. Everyone in the family looked forward to her meals, it reflected her love and her forgiveness. Why forgiveness? Because, 'the family' is the 'greedy institution' as social scientist Lewis Coser's put it. Its members demand much of the mother. Yet, from my many years of observations, the Polish mother is wise social member dutifully brings her children 'her flock' back to the table = the family.
Unfortunately, this is not the 'culture' or social practice in America... or at least not any longer. Grazing in the US means snacking all day long and is even touted as a way to live nutritionally. I don't doubt that one can find nutirional snacks and one could make the argument that a person could live off such snacks. However, as a sociologist, what about the social aspect of eating. Society needs families. In fact, families that compose society are the backbone of any society. One can make the argument that a family is a group of people and any group of people could come together to snack and hence family grazing. Perhaps, but grazing suggests individual eating and grazing also suggests flexibility concerning individual eating times/places.  I would not call grazing with 'strangers' at the snack court = family time. 
In my opinion, this is just another strategy of the far left progressive agenda. Most Americans are being fed the 'grazer' mentality as if it is better for people 'you'. The grazer eats little tid-bits throughout the day.  Effectually, what the grazer lifestyle does is break down the family and create individuals grazing herds on the plain of big government. It causes people to detach from old traditions, detach from each other culturally and from any shared socio-historical politics. It allows Big Gov to feed people on less while making them more dependent.

Animals graze in Poland, and its people eat well with their family.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Visiting Cemeteries and Lights to be Lit

Today and tomorrow Poles will go to the cemeteries to light candles and pay their respects to those that have passed on. I always enjoyed this time of year when I lived in Poland. At first, being an American, it seemed sober, somber and sad. The sober part in the meaning of being fully aware that death is inevitable for everyone in this world. Americans flee from death, we hide from death, we dodge death at every close encounter. We don't like suffering and we don't like to be around suffering and certainly we are uncomfortable to be around those grieving for the dead.
In Poland, people grieve too. But at this time of year, they bravely celebrate this sober reality and in a way 'salute' those that have already suffered and gone on. The streets are full of corner florists and candles can be bought by the case. No matter what the weather, they go and they put flowers, candles, trinkets. They meet old friends and are introduced to new ones. The cemeteries glow with the promise of eternal light, some say that you can see the cemeteries from heaven above (satellite pictures). And, to add to the atmosphere of this celebration, on most cemetery grounds, a violinist softly plays in the background. I loved the grand tour in Warsaw ending at the most famous of cemeteries where celebrities and heroes remain. Crowds squeeze close together in front of the flames and hum to or hush to their children.
Children today in Poland have caught on to the way Americans celebrate Halloween, and they may be putting on a costume and going to a party this evening; but what sadly has not caught on here is the pilgrimage to the cemetery to 'salute' those that are already in heaven.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Life on the Eastern Border

Life on the eastern border was so simple, so pure. I ate like a king. Food was so organic, the USD would not know how to label it. The only products bought were flour, sugar, tea, coffee and candy. I remember eating pierogi as big as the palm of my hand, filled with fresh curd cheese. I dipped them into a large jar of homemade sour cream. I spread fresh baked bread with hand churned butter and drank milk from the cow, never getting sick or a rash or anything. The great aunt and uncle were simple gracious people, always hospitable - sincerely welcoming. When I stayed the night in their two room house, I slept like a baby enveloped by darkness that laid on me like a heavy quilt. The sleeping room was the living room, the main salon, the family room. It was in that room that both were waked and celebrated after their burial. Everything good happened there, birth, life and death. How I wish I could live like that!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mushroom Hunting in Poland... the fungus amongus

At this time of year, I miss Poland very much. Why? Because, it is time to hunt for and pick mushrooms. It is time to walk through the colorful forest of Kabaty and hunt for those strange and beautiful mushrooms. Most edible and some not. The most incredible mushroom I found and ate was the Ox Tongue. It is called Oak Tongue in Polish. It grows out from the base of an oak tree. It is liver like, covered with dripping gooey slime like strawberry jelly. You slice it and fry it and it tastes like a filet of beef with lemon juice.
The other mushrooms that are prized are of the the Boletus Edulis and the Lepiota Procera. Both are excellent! Especially, the later 'Parasol Mushroom' fried in butter and made into a sandwich, laid between toasted bread is best. In central and eastern European countries this mushroom is usually prepared similarly to a cutlet. It is usually run through egg and breadcrumbs and then fried on a pan with some oil or butter. Then you served with bread as it makes a delicious meal during summer and fall. 
 A savory Slovak recipe is to bake caps stuffed with ground pork, oregano, and garlic. Italians and Austrians also serve the young, still spherical caps stuffed with seasoned minced beef, baked in the same manner as stuffed peppers.
This past weekend, though not in my beloved Poland, I walked the woods here with my beloved and we spotted mushrooms. There is something comforting walking through the woods, looking under deadwood and leaves... scouting for these delicious prizes. The air is filled with the smells of fungus, the sun is shining through the brightly colored leaves, the wind blows a coolness that says winter is coming.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Poland, Committed Ally of America is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Poland is a small east European country that is geographically between a rock and a hard place. In the meaning that it has borders with Germany and Russia. Yes, Poland is in the European Union, but old ideas of borders and identity run deep.
Where U.S. Translates as Freedom

Published: December 28, 2003


I found the cure.

I found the cure to anti-Americanism: Come to Poland.

After two years of traveling almost exclusively to Western Europe and the
Middle East, Poland feels like a geopolitical spa. I visited here for just
three days and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me. Get
this: people here actually tell you they like America — without whispering.
What has gotten into these people? Have all their subscriptions to Le Monde
Diplomatique expired? Haven't they gotten the word from Berlin and Paris? No,
they haven't. In fact, Poland is the antidote to European anti-Americanism.
Poland is to France what Advil is to a pain in the neck. Or as Michael
Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign affairs specialist, remarked after
visiting Poland: "Poland is the most pro-American country in the world —
including the United States."

What's this all about? It starts with history and geography. There's nothing
like living between Germany and Russia — which at different times have
trampled Poland off the map — to make Poles the biggest advocates of a
permanent U.S. military presence in Europe. Said Ewa Swiderska, 25, a Warsaw
University student: "We are the small kid in school who is really happy to
have the big guy be his friend — it's a nice feeling."

Indeed, all the history and geography that Western European youth have
forgotten, having grown up in a postmodern European Union, are still central
to Polish consciousness — well after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "We
still remember many things," said Jan Miroslaw, 22, also a Warsaw University
student. "We are more eager to cooperate with America rather than just say
`no.' [The West Europeans] just don't remember many things — like the wars.
They live too-comfortable lives."

No wonder then when young Poles think of America, they think of the
word "freedom." They think of generations of U.S. presidents railing against
their communist oppressors. There is a huge message in this bottle. In the
Arab world, because of a long history of U.S. support for Arab autocrats, who
kept their people down but their oil flowing to us, America was a synonym for
hypocrisy. In Poland, where we have consistently trumpeted freedom, America
means freedom. We need to remember that. We are what we stand for.

Poland's becoming a member of the E.U. will give the U.S. an important friend
within that body — a counterweight to those E.U. forces that would like to
use anti-Americanism as the glue to bind the expanding alliance and that
would like to see the E.U. forge its identity as the great Uncola to
America's Coca-Cola.

But as powerful as Poland's bond to America is these days, we dare not take
it for granted. Poland has some 2,400 troops in Iraq. That's the good news.
The bad news is that roughly 75 percent of Poles oppose their deployment.
Polish officials will tell you Poland sent troops to Iraq to help keep the
Americans in Europe. But the public doesn't make such connections, and most
people don't understand what their boys are doing there or what Poland is
getting out of it. (How about a few extra visas for Poles?) If the U.S. ends
up in a mess in Iraq, so will Poland. Many "old" Europeans will then laugh at
Warsaw, and that would be highly corrosive for Polish-U.S. relations.

At the same time, once Poland is fully ensconced in the E.U., its young
people will grow up in that postmodern E.U. nirvana, where anti-Americanism
is in the drinking water. Sadly, many education and public diplomacy programs
the U.S. directed at Eastern Europe after the fall of communism have been cut
or redirected to the Muslim world. Bad timing.

There is now a competition between the United States of America and the
United States of Europe for the next generation of Poles — who don't all have
their parents' emotional ties to the U.S. — "and the U.S. is losing this
competition," says a Polish foreign policy expert, Grzegorz Kostrzewa-
Zorbas. "The new generation in Poland likes American pop culture, but it has
less contact with American high culture — like education. It is so much
easier for young Poles to go to university in Germany or France."

Given Poland's geography and history, there's a limit to how far it will
drift from America. Poland will never be France. But we shouldn't assume it
will remain the Poland of 1989 forever, either, and if it doesn't, that could
have real consequences for America's standing in Europe.

That article by Thomas Friedman still holds true. I observed much change since 2003 which has significantly put Poland ahead since then but the depth of Polish identity remains though if visiting Warsaw it looks more and more like any other cosmopolitan European city.  Since the crisis in the Ukraine, Poles remain between a rock and a hard place and if you read the article found on the link just below, you will understand that illustration and or metaphor. BTW, Poles still need a visa to the US. ;-(

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Polish Family

The Polish Family

The family in Poland is a micro version of the nation, a homogenous social entity. What is that like? It is the social situation in which family members are of the same ethnic background, same race, same religion. There is in that a great sense of solidarity, security and continuity. This is not to say that Polish families do not suffer from conflict between each other, or hardship or neglect. However, those sufferings are more easily overcome or at best understood as part of the experience of being Polish, being human, being a residue of social interaction between members that have free will, experience emotion in a place. The results even if unbalanced, or unfair for one is reconciled in the hindsight of being Polish. This time, I don't get my way but next time I might and in this respect Polishness will remain, it will continue ... in this I rest in my identity of who I am and am not. I am Polish, as is my father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, neighbor... I am part of something much bigger, something with definite boundaries, something absolute.
In this I am eternal.
Acts 17:24-28 " The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything; because, He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being."

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Polish Mother

Mothers in  Poland
© by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, May 8, 2004 (article #191)

Mother's Day (Dzien Matki) in Poland is celebrated on the 26th of May every year. My mother never liked this day because she remembered it first from the time of the war. Germans occupants enforced its celebration in Silesia - as a Muttertag, where my mother grew up. But the first celebration of Mother's Day in Poland took place in 1923 in Krakow, but this feast was not really very popular until the WW II and the years short after the war.

Mother's Day is marked with the special celebrations in schools and kindergardens. Younger children prepare so called "laurki" for their mothers. ( laurka - is a sheet of paper decorated with flowers on which children write their wishes to their mothers). Schools often carry special ceremonies or classes to commemorate Mother's Day.

What was a life of a typical Polish mother during communism? Not easy. Polish mothers had plenty of responsibilities. Majority of women worked professionally - outside of the house. Partly due to the communistic idea that everybody has to work for the well being of the country, partly due to a fact that their husbands salary is not sufficient to secure a well being of the family. Working part-time was never very popular in Poland, so this was not an option.

Besides working outside of the home women took care of the household. They had to buy and prepare food and take care of the children. Polish family is not especially patriarchal and macho type is not that popular therefore some men, husbands and fathers do bear some responsibilities with the family and the household, but still women are usually in charge.

Eating out was not that popular in Poland since it is quite expensive and it is limited usually to the special occasion. Besides, the variety of restaurants was very limited, almost no any ethnic food was offered (except Polish food of course). Preparing food was also more troublesome than in the USA where almost ready dish can be bought in any grocery. Especially difficult was time of the economical crisis in late seventies and eighties when there was a constant deficit of food and other products on the market and food even became rationed. In that time women not only had to work and take care of the household but they have to think about how to get food to the table!

Presently Polish mothers have easier life in some aspects - abundant food is available everywhere in the stores. It is in part due to a fact that women as mothers are entitled to some social benefits because of their motherhood.

That article provides some insights as to what/who the Polish Mother is. Is she different from American mothers. Yes. Speaking as a sociologist conducting 12 years of participation / observation, I can say that they are better mothers in terms of understanding motherhood and the role it has for Polish people living in Poland. Their role as mother is taken very seriously. Why? Because, mothers impart the social reality to their infants/children. In order for Poland to be Poland, for Poles to be Polish, mother has an expected role; to impart/implant identity. Mother's in Poland consider this a life long job - motherhood.  They are constantly reminding their children who they are and are not. This is very important. How do they do it??? With words??? No, with tradition, food, words, and deep love guided by faith that her job was crucial and thus came an obvious sense of duty as a kind of national duty to wider society = all of Poland.
I learned more about being a mother in Poland than I did here in the US from my own mother. I do not dishonor my mother. I realize that she did not understand motherhood and the important role it is and the information needed to be passed (her duty) on in order for social reality to be imparted with a sense of comfort and security and identity. My mother like many other mothers in America (an immigrant country) was mixed ethnic background and she married into another family of mixed ethnic background. Her being mixed up caused her children to be mixed up and their children. What is negative about that? The art of mothering a strong sense of identity/self confidence/ belonging was lost due to conflicting information - each culture blurred through intermarriage... and richness of information was lost.  For those considering marriage, I advise as the Bible suggests Acts 17... God appointed the nations/ people in their place and they should stay there in order that they reach out to Him ...Marry someone on the same page that you are on other words- if you decide to marry then marry your own kind, you can still be an American.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Poland, a Place of Tradition and Pierogi

Poland is now being caught up in the global agenda. However, there are many Poles who value Poland as a place of tradition. It is a country where most people are Christian and most people eat pierogi at Christmas and Easter and even everyday.  Not that other foods do not exist. Pizza is very popular but then Poles are sometimes referred to as the Italians of the North. Pizza, hamburgers and Sushi can be bought but when it comes to holidays in Poland, pierogi are still considered a tradition. There is a quietness in tradition. How? It is in knowing something won't change. This knowing gives a person a sense of security, a sense of belonging to a place, to other people in that place. It is a knowing of who you are and are not. It is defining your being this knowing. In that alone, one is quieted, at rest.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Wow! Bieg Rzeznik... makes you wonder if Poles are Stoics

Are Polish people Stoics? My observation is yes. Considering my ex who organizes one of the most grueling races of all time "Bieg Rzeznik", 50 miles race for best time in the Bieszczady Mountains. If interested, you can check out the race online.
Back to the question. First, what does it mean to be a Stoic. Maybe we need to look at Epicureans to better set up for Stoicism. Epicureans aim at being happy "don't worry be happy", que sera sera (sorry on the spelling) you know "what will be will be". You only live once!
 The Stoic is someone who sees/thinks the divine is in all things and because of that enormous complexity, the creator, what is divine, is unknowable. All we can do in this world is dig in and make it to the other side but even that is not for sure. So why bother. The Stoic is sure about a divine spirit in all things, therefore, it is ones duty/religion to do something... the will to do something. Even Thorstein Veblen saw that in his observations.  No matter what the challenge, just do it, you have to, the divine spark in you should not be wasted! Niki must think so, it got them to a market position that may never be toppled.
Is that a good thing? Paul spoke in Athens to people of these two schools of thought. He appealed to them both. I myself am a bit of a Stoic. God is there, no doubt and his will should be mine. Sometimes I think that I will never know what that is unless I go the distance.  Guess my Polish roots go deep like the runners of Rzeznik.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Idea of Solidarity ...

My idea of Solidarity was formed in Poland.  It came from my experiences living in Poland for more than ten years. It may even have come from my own Polish roots. Solidarity for me means living and dying for the same blood, the same cause, the same world view, the same identity and same belief in God. This appears maybe as negative for those caught up in the contemporary love of diversity. Is there diversity in solidarity, of course. As much as needed by a group to remain 'solid', and enough to keep things alive as in moving forward in time as a group. Can a person from the outside of such a group be integrated in? That is a good question and one that friends of mine are trying to understand and even make happen.  What is essential regarding integration into a 'solid' system is compatibility upgrades. One has to know the language, the traditional way of doing things so that in moving forward this is a way to look back and understand where you came from and why the change if any. This applies to all integration. Once you are integrated, the beauty of the system of the solidarity can be seen, understood and appreciated... it can bring joy! Isn't this why people integrate? If you are not up to this kind of experience, maybe because you are in solidarity already in your own group then stay where you are and integrate someone into your group.  Solidarity!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Living and Dying For Each Other

We are Polish, we live and die for each other! I think about Poland, I think about the homogeneity. I think about a kind of kinship, a deep affection for Poles. What does it mean to be Polish? It means to be Polish, to live Polish, to speak Polish, to be understand Poles and know Polish history. If you are Polish, you know what to think, what to eat for Christmas Eve, what names day it is, and how much Pope John Paul meant to Poland. I like the sameness of Poland; not that diversity is absent but it is rather individuality expressed in being Polish. For instance, expressing your Polishness through correct us of the language, traditions, knowledge of history, song and dance, cooking, remembering ... (going to the cemetery to visit loved ones who died, and lighting a candle for anyone (in the grave) who does not have a family or friend to do it for them ). You can travel to a far from Poland and if you hear Polish, suddenly you are transported back to Poland and the person you just met is like a relative to you.
Going to Church is important (there is a Catholic church in every neighborhood; and living a Christ like life is important to Poles... not that they don't slip up or even profess that they don't believe... they do; they are living and dying for each other. That is a Christ lived life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Living in a Communist built Block

Living in a communist built block, I was not ready for that. I was in shock actually. What shocked me first was the grim appearance (my first time in 1997). They towered in some places like vaults that stood as harbors of immorality and unethical measure. There was literally no parking lot, people were expected to take public transportation and most everyone did. Yet, people wanted and acquired cars... so they parked wherever they could once the few 'parking spots' were taken. Then there was the long clanking ride up to the tenth floor in the what seemed like 'cargo elevator'... smelling like cigarette smoke and alcohol and dog pee. It felt like I was going down into an abyss rather than up to a flat 'apartment'. Once inside, the rooms were sparsely decorated, the toilet closet located usually in the middle of the flat... rather no hallways to speak of and that meant no privacy; though small rooms off the foyer (if you could call it that) had doors that closed, they were thin and had opaque class from top to bottom letting in much sound and light. The toilet closet was often separate from the bathtub area/room. Believe me when I say closet, there was barely enough room to get in and do what you went in to do. The toilet plumbing was exposed and the toilet was usually the same in all flats, a tank that had a long neck and oval seat, the bowel was shallow and had a ledge which often allowed substance to remain even after flushing.  Thankfully, the bath tub was in another space adjacent and yet not close to that toilet.
The kitchen cabinets were always rickety and appliances tiny. I thought, no average American could every live like this. Not even the poorest of Americans could imagine living like this. Though I was shocked, I got used to it. I even shared by space with others, who stopped by announced and even stayed over.  Soon, communal living became the norm for me. I realized that life was not about things, but about people. I knew people intimately and no one tried to show off... they couldn't anyway. I also liked walking to and from the store, the bread kiosk, the church, school, the park... and even the doctor's office; occasionally, taking public transportation which was another way you could meet/and or get to know someone or know about something. Home-cooked food was way better than eating out and caring for family and attending church on Sunday was normal behavior.
Of course, things began to change in Poland since 97. Since then, a lot more people drive their own cars, and a lot more people live in self - purchased, private owned, new apartments. Malls came on the scene and shopping on Sunday. In fact, if I compare 1997 Warsaw to 2014, it is a different place. Since 1997 life in Poland has begun to sparkle with billboards and glass structures, and so are many other cities and towns. The West came flooding in and cleaned things up, gave people new ideas, new starts, new life. Now, one can notice large privately owned houses enclosed by fences and gates, manicured lawns and no trespassing signs. And, people in Poland like most of Americans are favoring staying in their houses playing games on the computer, texting to neighbors/friends...  coming out to get in their SUVs and drive to the mall. Mmm, maybe block living wasn't so bad. Not that I am in favor of communism and living in concrete blocks with bad plumbing but I am in favor of living a real life, enjoying people's company face to face, walking to and from the local store, church and school, home-cooked food and family.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Red Lake and Gibson's

Red Lake was/is the color of home brewed sun tea. It was due to the peat bogs nearby. It smelled  good and it tasted good too. Officially, it was/is off limits to swimmers, but local people went for a dip and it was tolerated by the local authorities who also frequented Red Lake. It was also a good place for gathering mushrooms. The eastern borderland was and remains a paradise for me. We biked everywhere we went in the Gmina Wola Uhruska which contains these villages and settlements of Bytyn, Huta, Kosyn, Macosyn Duzy, Majdan Stulenski, Mszanka, Stulno and Stare Stulno, and Uhrusk of which I know intimately. 
Though usually going by bike, I had one one occasion to go by horseback... which is my preferred mode of transportation. I rode the borderland with my guide, a young teenage from Majdan Stulenski. She could speak English and was curious about the West. I told her to wait long enough and it would eventually come to Poland... that was in 1999. By 2004, the West arrived. Thankfully, most of the west remained in Warsaw. The eastern border remained and still does remain a paradise to me. Why a paradise? Because of the local people, the local communities, the localness as we called it. People there were free and I felt more free there than anywhere. Local people made their own decisions on how to live together and among border guards too. It was a symbiotic relationship.
On hot summer days, we would get up early enough and have breakfast then get on our bikes and head out to make interviews or to just enjoy the day swimming, biking or hiking and mushrooming. There were stops along the way in small villages like Kosyn where we could get a cold drink, and eat good bread and cheese for lunch. Of course, we made our way over to Red Lake for a swim in the tea colored water full of life and nutrients and refreshment.
Later in the day, we would end up in Wola where we could get a plate of homemade pierogi at Gibson's. Yes, that was the name of the place. Before 2004, it was a little place, in fact an old hut that became the local bar and eatery. After 2004, Gibson got some funds from the EU and it became quite a nice pensionaj (bar, eatery and motel).  The Gibson has been a place of destination when I am in the east, I even took my husband there. He was surprised by the name and location; the local village of Wola Uhruska near the Bug River once a land part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the steppes of a wild frontier.
When I took my husband, it was an easy train ride from Warsaw and then by car. When I went there back in the late 90s, it was a long long train ride and I felt like I was venturing into some kind of outback... for me in my memory, it remains just that... an outback where local people live simple and free.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ghosts in Macsoczyn

The Eastern border of today's Poland has its ghosts. Macsoczyn has some too. The Village of Macsoczyn is where Alexandra and Michal lived. Macsoczyn is still a very small village near the Bug and near to Sobibor Forest. Today a peaceful and beautiful forest with tall conifers. However, during WWII, there was no tall established forest, there was only the Nazi concentration camp - Sobibor. I was there many times to interview local people and meet the local anthropological/historian Marek Bem. I was there once when Toivi Blatt came with a group of Americans. He was giving a special tour of the death camp that he had survived.  He wrote a book called " From the Ashes of Sobibor". There was a planned escape from Sobibor, it was the most successful one though only 50 survived. If I remember correctly, at the time of the escape, there were some 600 Jews there. About 300 plus got out of 'escaped' the camp on October 14 1943. Many were gunned down trying to get over or under the barbed wire fences and if they did, they risked falling onto land mines as they ran from the camp. More were hunted down and executed only miles from the camp within the following hours/days of the escape.
Alexandra and Michal were Christan and were not aware of the atrocities going on there, though rumors were about. Some locals were enlisted to help out with the Nazi occupation in Poland, sorting clothes i.e. and providing food stuffs to the soldiers ... or else face execution. Alexandra and Michal did not tell me if they were ever recruited but I know that they did know about or had an idea that an escape from Sobibor took place as they mentioned having helped some Jews by giving them food for their way. Those times were brutal for all who lived in that region. i could go on as there is so much to tell, but I think best if  you read it yourself. I recommend reading Blatt's book or making a trip to Sobibor, visit the museum and see for yourself... what remains. About 250,000 Jews from all over Europe were killed there, gassed and buried. There was recently a documentary on public television about Sobibor hosted by Sobibor historian, Howard Tuck. Blatt was a young man even teenager at the time, strong and kept on by the Nazi to work on the camp. He escaped that day and said that he thought for sure he would be shot and welcomed death as he was free! He says by God's grace he made it, though it was not easy and he had to lay low and endure pain and hardship for a long time, even after the war and until he got out of Europe. He lives in California today.
The people of Macsoczyn thought less than 5 miles from Sobibor say that they either don't remember much about this, don't want to or are too young to remember what happened at Sobibor. They are just ghosts of another time and they were/are just local  people.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Best Pierogi

I will never forget the taste of Alexandra's pierogi. It was the best pierogi every.  Alexandra lived on a small farm on the eastern border near the Bug. She was born in today's Ukraine; in fact, somewhere in the Caucasus. Her father came across the plains 'steppes' and settled near the Bug with his family in tow. They farmed simply... potatoes and beet roots, apples and plums along with having a cow for milk, chickens for eggs and soup and a pig for meat. I met Alexandra when she was in her late 70's. The only family member left besides her was her husband Michal who came there years ago during WWII. He was originally from Poland but after the war, his country became today's Belarus. He could never go back as he had no paperwork on him, being a partisan. Together, they stayed on the farm and lived simply never having any children. Even near 80, Alexandra would still get up at the crack of dawn, milking and tending the animals. She would make butter in a wooden churn and she took the cream to set out for sour cream. She could grab a chicken by the neck and make it into soup by midday. She also made the best pierogi as big as the palm of your hand. I loved the ones stuffed with homemade cottage cheese. I would eat them after they cooled and just dunk them into a jar of homemade sour cream washed down with a class of buttermilk. For dinner, we had creamed chicken soup with rice, scrambled eggs with pork and plenty of grease, potatoes and sweet bread and tea for desert... the best food in the world and all organic.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Deep Dark Forest of Bialowieza

The Deep Dark Forest of the Bialowieza.
We had been riding all day long and wanted to finish before sunset with 60k behind us. We were in the borderland area of Poland and Belarus and the Ukraine. The Bialowieza Forest extends into both border countries. It is an very old forest; in fact, primal in many respects of its flora and fauna. I was quite tried and just wanted to make camp. The guys too and we hadn't much to choose from regarding campsite. We rode along the edge of the Forest til we spotted an inlet, a wood cutters path. We turned in. The farther we rode in, the denser and darker it got. I was a bit spooked by it. The trees were enormous, we could not find a clearing. I started to think that it was not a good idea to camp in there; after all, we just left the small village of Bialowieza where we made interviews and the stories were enough to make your skin crawl, mostly about the atrocities of the War, people on the run and death around the corner. But, there were older stories too that came from a time past when pagans lived in that part of Europe and the practices they had, rituals and such seemed to be right from Brother's Grimm. Suddenly, I said stop and everybody held up. I looked down at the counter on my bike and it read 666. I screamed out "no way am I staying here', funny the guys did not argue. Needless to say, we got out of there quickly and rode to the edge of the forest where we found and  went into a scrubby young tree grove near a farm. We pitched tents and just got in and tried to sleep. In the middle of the night, a loud metallic scream raced overhead. It went on for an hour; the farmer's cow bellowed and the dog barked. I was terrified in the pitch blackness of the tent, of the night. The guys did not seem to care, they did not stir. Believe me though, I said my prayers til morning light. That is a true story.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Second Breakfast

The second breakfast happened like this. Remember the story of the doctor's mother, well the next morning, after homemade doughnuts on the wood stove, we had a second breakfast. You might ask, how could we even fit in a second breakfast. Well, after peddling for 25ks, a second breakfast is doable. Even if it were just 10k, fresh currant jam and homemade cottage cheese, how could one refuse. The second breakfast took place at a small farm along the Polish eastern border. We were admiring the planted flower boxes hanging the windows of a simple wood framed hut. The garden in front was tidy and pretty. As I rested a bit, a woman came out and asked us what we were doing and where we were from. We gathered close to her by the fence that closed in her vegetable/flower garden and told her. She immediately called out to her husband. He came out and she introduced us. We started to chat and thought they would be good material for an interview. They invited us in for jam, homemade bread and cottage cheese. We accepted. We brought our bikes with all their gear into the garden area and closed the gate. The woman of the house went inside and quickly brought out a white table cloth (a sheet) and stretched it out over an old wood bench. We pulled up split logs and waited, talking with her husband who was in the air force during the war. Soon, we had a table spread with delicious goodies that were 100% organic. We ate til we could eat no more. Over coffee and tea, the couple told us that there are few young people in the village, it empties out daily. The children don't want to stay here and live simply they cried... tears falling. I was too overcome by their emotion. How I would love to live a simple life, eat simple food and tend a simple garden. They said they did not understand the need for all this technology and that in fact it was evil in their eyes. Maybe it is... we lose so much social reality to the Internet. I hated to leave them. They asked if we would stay and be the new people.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Life on the Eastern Border

Life on the eastern border is about local living; its all about 'place' where people know each other because they come from there, they are local. I have been nearly the entire stretch from the upper corner of Poland near the Russian border all the way down to the most southern point bordering with the Ukraine; and all on bicycle. Some people were amazed to see let alone talk to an American woman on a bike interested in their life on the eastern border.
I was even in the Ukraine on bike and crossed the border from Poland into the Ukraine by bicycle. The border guards said it was a first. I will tell the longer version of that story, experience in the Ukraine another day. For now, the tales come from biking along the eastern Polish border. I had a great hot shower in the Suwalki train station... yes, you can (don't know if you still can) back in 2000 have a shower on the train station, a hot hot shower with super pressure. I danced around in there like it was a western hoedown. It was the best shower of my life; after all, it was a long train up to that Russian/Lithuanian borderland riding in the car with the bikes, hard seats and no place to wash up. Once, my shower refreshed me, I was able to get on my bike and start riding. I have already told you about some of the stories that ensued from there on like Paradise in Punsk and the Doctor's Mother. This area of northern Poland reminds me of northern Sweden or Minnesota. There are clean cold lakes everywhere, sandy trails through conifer forests and blueberries to pick. What sticks out in my mind the most is the Czarna Hancza River, cold and clear. I could swim with my eyes open under the water and drink it up at the same time. I stayed in once so long that I did not realize I was getting hypothermia. Sounds extreme doesn't it. For those who cannot take the cold water, I recommend taking in the sauna - a small cabin sits by the river that you can rent for a few hours. The owner comes by and lights up the stove which gets as hot as 110 degrees. You sit until you can't stand to swelter anymore and then make a mad dash down the dock and jump into the cold deep Czarna Hancza.
You can meet nice people that way too, some come from all over Europe. Afterwards, its time for a bonfire, beer and plate of trout with a side of pirogi.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Making Butter on the Eastern Border

Making butter on the eastern border with Ukraine and Belorussia. Yes, I spent a lot of time bumping around (as a sociologist: assisting in face to face interviews and being a participant/observer) on the eastern border; and I loved it. We stayed often with a great aunt and uncle. They lived in a hut: two large rooms divided by a huge ceramic wood burning stove which was the only source of heat and only means for cooking. There was no running water, no sink, no toilet. There was electricity, a light bulb hung down in the kitchen room and in the dining/living/bedroom also one light hung down over a table. In that room, I ate, drank and slept and participated a wake and funeral party all in the same room, at different times of course. It was such a humbling experience and yet so humanly profound. When you may wonder? 2008 how is that for 21century life!
Ok, I am supposed to be talking about making butter. The aunt and uncle had a small farm with one cow. There farm was near the eastern border where the Ukraine and Belorussia come together divided by the Bug River. They used to call this area Poland as it stretched all the way to Lvov. It was a multicultural and multi-religious local community. I stress local as that was the most often given word when asked "who are you" to the local population which before the war was a mix of Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews.
In a nearby town, they claimed three cultures and lived at peace until the war came and divided people to gain advantages... military foothold.
Today, most people are Poles but they remember those times like it was yesterday. The life there was and still is simple. Some might see it as empty of things, lacking in technology, missing out on bigger things. Probably for the young people, yes. They don't know what they are losing. I was there in 2011 and saw the older people still doing what the great aunt and uncle did a few years ago. Everyday they get up, feed the chickens and milk the cow, even twice a day. From the milk, they make/made cream, sour cream, butter and cheese. All those food items produced and prepared by the aunt and uncle tasted like they were made in heaven, even though I noticed (being an American and from the city) the containers for them were washed out in well water and hung to dry on dried twigs stuck in the ground behind the hut. This was done everyday and in the same way. There was a well out front and I washed up many dishes there.
I tried using the wooden butter churn, it was heavy and had years of wear on it. It was work. I was surprised how much effort it took and even more surprised that the great aunt of 80 years could do it with ease and pleasure. She would make homemade cheese pirogi as big as the palm of your hand, boil them and then serve them with the homemade sour cream and butter. The butter was light in color and rich in flavor.
The bread also was a slice of heaven, thick and full of nutrition. I miss that food, good food, hearty and cooked to satisfy a big hunger, served with love and faith and Thanks to the Lord for providing.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What I learned From Poland

What I learned from Poland.

I learned a lot. I learned about solidarity and what it means to belong to a group of people who know who they are and where they come from. They all speak the same language and worship the same God. They all eat the same foods and drink the same drinks. They like the seaside and love the mountains. They are romantic and philosophical. They know history and are well read. I told my students here in the US that once you are at university, you must prove to your professor that you are well read, not well surfed. They did not get the joke. I learned how to share in Poland; what is mine is theirs... we are all Polish. Nothing gets lost in Poland only misplaced in Poland. So, why worry if something of yours is at someone else's or somewhere else in Poland. It did not really go anywhere.
I learned how to manage a household and family and to love to cook for my family and friends. I learned what friendship means and that it does not go away or change and that having friends over is the best way to spend an evening or weekend. I learned that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus and that is good. Here is the US women want to be men. I experienced their educational system where teachers rule and professors are never evaluated by underlings. I walked its grassy meadows in Wisla and drank the clean cold water of the Czarna Hancza. I miss Poland, and I pray that God takes care of His Playground.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Paradise in Punsk

This story is from the little town of Punsk. We were riding all day having a philosophical discussion.  The view that seemed to take precedence was that life is a predestined string of events which we have no control over them; therefore, we could then trust anyone as they were put in front of us since. The other view was that we make choices and some of those choices work in our favor and some do not; as long as we believe and trust in our choices, all would be good choices.  Again, we were faced with having to find a place to stay the night. Being along the Polish - Lithuanian border, we had a lot to pick from. I was hoping to find a nice lake side campsite so I could wash up and cook dinner, a nearby water source is great to have; in fact when water is present its a paradise. Kryszek wanted to have a television so he could watch soccer championships. The other guys just wanted to rest. 
We came to the little town of Punsk.  
In the Puńsk region first inhabitants’s signs were dated from 10000 BC. There lived the Yotvingians in the firsts part of the Middle Ages. A castle hill in Jegliniec (9 km from Puńsk to the north) is their inheritance.The Yotvingians had lived there till the 13th century, when finally they were invaded by the Order of Teutonic Knights. For long time the land was overgrown with forests which were started to colonize by Lithuanians, Poles and Russians in the 15th century. Only Lithuanians and Polish people stayed there till these days.In the historical documents Puńsk is mentioned in 1559. The forester Stanisław Zaliwski established there a village. In 1606 Puńsk is called a town. Thet period is very important in Punsk history because it was developing very quickly. There were a school and hospital. Unfortunately, the plague killed lots of the inhabitants and later after the division of Poland, the town belonged to Prussia, and later to Russia. 
The economy got worse and that was the reason that in the 18th century civic rights were lost. Later there were opened a school, various associations, a small bookshop. A lot of Jews lived there. Nowadays you can see their old buildings and cemetery. German Evangelics also lived here. Their cemeteries remained in Puńsk and Poluńce village.Sejwy is mentioned in the same year as Puńsk in 1559. In Sejwy a mansion established by the village’s headman. Next the mansion there is a lake called “Seivis”. According to the storiesof old people, on the island of the lake there used to be a castle. On the lake’s ground (from Vitakiemis-country side) there is a big stone (about 2 metres height) which top is seen on the shore. Nearby Sejwy there is a lake called “Bokšis”.Smolany belongs to Puńsk community. It is mentioned in 1642 as a small mansion, from the 18th century as a village. The name of the village comes from “smaliokai” which means the producers of  tar (pitch). Habermanas was a lord of this land, he bought it and wanted to enlarge it to the town. He tried to stablish the cloth manufacture. He built a church and monastery. But the civic rights weren’t got. Other Puńsk countries were establishing in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is worth to mention such countries: Jegliniec (“Eglinė”) and its Yotvingian castle hill; Krejwiany where is the monument of illegal books distributor P. Matuklevičius; Trakiszki where the old train station was built by tzar; Giełujsze in which forest there is a badger’s hill. On its top there was a chapel. It is thought that in the old times there were the pagan places where the sacred fire was burning and the gods were honored.

We stopped in the center of town and took out our maps as was the routine. I argued with Kryszek that we could choose any site and it would be the best and he said we could just as well trust anyone who points us the way and it would be the best site.
Just then, a man came staggering out of the local pub. He saw us and made a huge effort to walk toward us. When he got close, he got very close to me and started to ask what we were doing, who were we, where were we going... his breath could have been cut with a knife. Needless to say, I called to the guys to step in so I could breathe. We told him that we were looking for a nice place to put our tent for the night. And, he said he had just the right place, a paradise in fact. He asked if we could wait while he got his bicycle so that he could show us the way. Ironically, Kryszek protested and said that drunk has no clue what we are talking about, or what we need to do, its getting dark. I said, let us follow your view on life and go with this man, he says he has a paradise for us. The man came back with a broken down bicycle and attempted to ride it. He went 5 fit and fell over. He got up and went farther but the chain came off the bike. He fixed it and got back on. He turned to us and said come on. So we went. We rode around the village and he told us all about himself that he was a big shot in government ministry and owned a lot of land in this area. He could even speak a little English. He kept falling down or having to fix the bicycle chain and it seemed that we would just keep circling the town until he spotted a path into the woods and we went after him. It crooked around between trees and bushes, luckily they were raspberry bushes so in the moments of his picking himself up from the ground, we enjoyed a handful or two of berries. It was starting to get dark and still no paradise. We looked at each other and thought maybe on his next crash to the ground we would turn around and disappear. But, we kept going. Suddenly, the woods opened up and there before us was a lovely meadow with a big new built house and behind that a large clear blue lake with a covered picnic area nearby. There was even a small vendor with beer and pop to offer us and he had a tv. Needless to say, we found our paradise for the night. The next morning the man was nowhere to be found.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Looking for a Pot... to cook in

Looking for a pot on the trail of the Curzon Line

Bright and early we headed out with what looked like tons of gear, piled on 5 bikes and still we were without a large pot. We had one but it was to be used for coffee or tea over the fire. It was decided that somewhere along the way, we would buy an additional cooking pot. It needed to be large enough to cook spaghetti for five hungry people (four of whom were men).
As I remember, we took the train riding in the bicycle car and the plan was to get out up by Suwalki, this is a small town by the Polish Lithuanian border. Suwalki is a northeastern Polish town and the capital of Suwalki County. This town in Poland is around 30 km from the Lithuanian border in an area known as Suvalkija, sometimes referred to as Sudovia. This region has been in controversy over the true nation that Suvalkja should really belong to since World War II; however, the majority of Suvalkja has remained a part of Poland. If you don't know the history of Poland and its Polish towns is always intriguing and Suwalki is no different.The village was founded by Camaldolese monks who in 1667 were granted the area surrounding the future town by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and theKing of Poland John II Kaszimir. Soon afterward the monastic order built its headquarters inWigry where a monastery and a church were built. The new owners of the area started fast economic exploitation and development of the forests and brought enough settlers to build several new villages in the area. The village was first mentioned in 1688; two years later it was reported to have two houses. In 1688, Suwalki Poland was only a small village that was home on a trade route that connected Godno and Merecz with Koenigsberg. .By 1710, permission from King August II the Strong was given to Suwalki to hold markets and fairs. The small village grew with the population tripling by 1827. Suwalki Poland thrived during the inter-war period due to its position as a town in Poland dependent of commerce and trade. World War II came to the area, and Suwalki was then only a town that was incorporated into East Prussia. In the center of Suwalki, there are two parks and the Arkadia Lake that offers a variety of recreational activities and there are other attractions such as the monument and museum dedicated to Maria Konopnicka, the brewery of Waclaw Kunc, and the St. Alexander’s Church. Many of the cemeteries throughout Poland were desecrated by the Nazi’s, with one being in Suwalki. Today, at the Suwalki Jewish cemetery you will see a memorial at the location of where the cemetery once stood along with a few gravestones and only portions of markers left behind.

I love Poland for its people and natural landscapes and water; lakes are pristine ironically thanks to communism. In this northern region begins my favorite river the Czarna Hancza, cold cold cold. However, after a long train ride in the bicycle car, a dip that river was not what I was thinking of doing first. I was so ecstatic to discover that on the train station a pay as you use hot shower was available. I jumped right in.  Soon enough after my blissful experience at the train station, we were riding the open road and making interviews with locals. Later on, it was time to look for a place to pitch our tent. That night I think it was by one of the shallow sandy bottom lakes, crystal clear with swans swooning across. Dinner was scramble eggs with wild mushrooms done on rotation since we had only the one small pot. Of course, I was unsettled by not having a proper outdoor cooker but the guys did not seem to mind. However, the next morning nobody liked the taste of scrambled eggs in a pot after coffee and especially the way it was made, boiled grounds. So, we were all the more eager to buy a bigger pot.
We went from town to town making our way south. I was getting more and more desperate to find a bigger pot to cook our meals in, the odd thing was that not one store had a larger pot to sell us.  So we rode on and on... as it was on many day rides we stopped to talk to a local man sitting by the road, who was resting a bit since he was just after picking up some mushrooms. He told us that he was a beekeeper, Lithuania by blood, living locally in the area where generations of his family came from. We came to learn that borders did not matter for these people living on this Curzon line. They identified themselves as from here or there and or not over there but from here cause that is how it has always been.
The afternoon came quickly and so we left him continuing on our way hungrily discussing what to eat for dinner and I said "if only pots on trees"... rounding the road not much than a sandy path winding through the forests and meadows when one of us spotted something growing on a tree- it was a large blue pot.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Doctor's Mother

We were traveling on bicycle along the Polish eastern border with Lithuania. Our task was to interview local people; to learn how they were dealing with transition from a communist country to a 'free market' democracy but even more to better understand how they identified with themselves in a place since the time of the drawn Curzon line (named after the British foreign secretary Lord Curzon) of WWI.
The Curzon Line,  established a demarcation line between Poland and the Soviet 'Russia' Union that was proposed during the Russo-Polish War of 1919–20 as a possible armistice line and became (with a few alterations) the Soviet-Polish border after WWII. After WWI, the Allied Supreme Council, which was determining the frontiers of the recently reestablished Polish state, created a temporary boundary marking the minimum eastern frontier of Poland and authorized a Polish administration to be formed on the lands west of it (Dec. 8, 1919). That line extended southward from Grodno, passed through Brest-Litovsk, and then followed the Bug River to its junction with the former frontier between the Austrian Empire and Russia. When a subsequent Polish drive eastward into the Ukraine collapsed, the Polish prime minister,Wladyslaw Grabski, appealed to the Allies for assistance (July 1920). On July 10, 1920, the Allies proposed an armistice plan to Grabski, designating the line of Dec. 8, 1919, with a southwestward continuation to the Carpathian Mountains, keeping Przemyśl for Poland but ceding eastern Galicia; the following day the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, whose name was subsequently attached to the entire line, made a similar suggestion to the Soviet government. Neither the Poles nor the Soviets, however, accepted the Allied plan. The final peace treaty (concluded in March 1921), reflecting the ultimate Polish victory in the Russo-Polish War, provided Poland with almost 52,000 square miles (135,000 square kilometres) of land east of the Curzon Line. Although the Curzon Line, which had never been proposed as a permanent boundary, lost significance after the Russo-Polish War, the Soviet Union later revived it, claiming all the territory east of the line and occupying that area (in accordance with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939) at the outbreak of World War II. Later, after German had invaded the Soviet Union, the Red Army pushed back the German troops and occupied all of the former state of Poland by the end of 1944; the United States andGreat Britian  then agreed to Soviet demands (Yalta Conference; Feb. 6, 1945) and recognized the Curzon Line as the Soviet-Polish border. On Aug. 16, 1945, a Soviet-Polish treaty officially designated a line almost equivalent to the Curzon Line as their mutual border; in 1951 some minor frontier adjustments were made.Encyclopedia Britanica retrieved from online -

So, it was this line that we traveled by bicycle the summer of 1998 and the following summer of 1999.  Who were we (me and colleagues- Mirek, Arek, Martin, Kryszek) We had all our gear on the back of our bikes, little money and lots of enthusiasm. The story of the doctor's mother takes place south of Bialystok.
We had bad weather, lots of rain and I was soaking wet. Though we found shelter in a bus stop in a small village on our route, it did not provide much in keeping us from getting even wetter. And, of course, I had to use the bathroom. I learned early on that flush toilets were far and few between. So, somewhere behind the bus stop among the tall weeds I went. That night, I realized that I had gotten into some weeds that caused a rash, itching and lots of pain all over my legs, behind and feet. Needless to say, I was miserable. The next morning the rain had stopped but my misery grew. I could not even sit on the seat of my bicycle. I pleaded with the guys to stop in the next village and help me find a doctor or pharmacy. We found a doctor and I was so relieved. He gave me some topical cream and tablets for allergy and itching. I was so thankful. With that taken care of, we continued on our way. We rode about 60ks further south and soon found ourselves at a crossroads in yet another small (very small) village. It was already evening and we needed to find a place to pitch our tents. We took out the maps and checked out the area and the route we intended for the next day. So, imagine this... there we were the five of us in this grassy crossroads  intersected by dusty village roads scoping out the area when from down the long driveway of a small hut a man walked toward us. We did not pay him much attention until he started waving his arms and yelling something. We thought like other local encounters, he wanted to meet us and find out who we were and what we were doing. Of course, this was our work to talk to the locals and we intended to do that once he was upon us. We kept scoping out a place to pitch our tent and he kept walking toward us... still waving his arms and yelling. When he was closer we finally heard what he was yelling at us "I m the doctor"!   It turned out that he was the doctor who treated me earlier 60ks back. He had finished his work and drove south to visit his mother. We did make our interview with him and his mother who lived in the tiny hut. We also stayed the night with her sleeping on bright white sheets that smelled like sunshine. More incredible is that she made us a delicious breakfast the next morning of homemade donuts fried on a wood-burning kitchen stove.
I will never forgot that encounter, I am truly amazed at the simple life of those people in that region of Poland.