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.