I have struggled with this blog. Most people would give the big FUCK YOU to 2020, but as I look back over my year, I have much to be thankful for, a lot of happy memories and good experiences. I think we can all agree that 2020 was, well, different…2020 the year the world stopped turning…but perhaps Charles Dickens explained it best over 160 years ago… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The theme of duality in “Tale” certainly carried through 2020. While Dickens’ characters simultaneously reflect the mirror images of good and evil, the story also shows us how human emotions, religious intensity, and a political situation set apart 2 countries. These same themes in 2020 not only set apart countries, but we saw families tore apart and friendships shattered, not just in the USA but across the globe.
The struggle being, how do you talk about 2020, a year in your life that was pretty damn good without diminishing the trials and tribulations it gave to so many? November 17, 2019, I had just returned to the USA from living abroad and celebrated the holidays with family and friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 2 years. I started the new year new decade also surrounded by family and friends. My brother and sister-in-law gave me one of the best nights of my life in January. In February, I moved to a new country, Poland, to live. I have a job. I have been travelling. I am healthy. Meanwhile, I have family and friends losing businesses and jobs. I know people who have quarantined themselves for 10 months. I know people who have been sick and people who have died from Covid-19, yet I am saying 2020 was a good year…the struggle is real and no 2020 wasn’t always, “the best of times” but it certainly wasn’t “the worst of times”, for me. With no further ado, my year in review:
December 31, 2019…I have been back in the USA for about 6 weeks. The first time in 6 or 7 years I have been spent the holidays on “home” soil. I had a beautiful condo overlooking courthouse square in my hometown. Family and friends had helped me move in and make it mine. My cousin Bob pointed out that It would be the perfect place to gather to kick off a new year, a new decade. Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it was the place to be to welcome 2020. I had an early dinner, which turned into a longer than planned dinner, with family and friends at a beautiful wine bar on the river in Warren. While I was wining and dining, my good friends, Teri, and Michael were preparing my place for the big bash. I finally arrived home and soon my place was wall to wall people. Some ready to put 2019 behind them and others talking about plans for the new decade. 00:01 January 1, 2020…. champagne is flowing, laughter, hugs, kisses, pork and sauerkraut, shots, reminiscing about Y2K and here it was 20 years later, excitement for the new year, and most of all happiness and joy.
Soon it would be January 9, 2020. The reason I was in Warren Ohio…the Grand Re-Opening of The Robins Theatre. I came because my brother Mark and sister-in-law Lori had turned a dream into a reality. The historic Robins Theatre in our hometown…opened in 1923…. closed in 1974….sat vacant for 45 years….was re-opening. The night was like the Oscars. The marquee was lit and flanked by spotlights seen for miles. The red carpet was laid because all of Warren, Trumbull County, and NE Ohio were the stars. Swag bags were passed out by the high school football players. It was a black-tie night, and I was in my gown. I live just around the corner from the theatre, a one-minute walk at most.
At about 6 pm, a white stretch limo pulls up and Mark, in his tuxedo, gets out of the car and walks to me. He puts his arms around me, and I immediately start to cry. This is the night he has been waiting for. He escorts me to the limo and once inside, pours me a glass of champagne and says, “here’s to mom and dad”. The limo pulls away and drives around the block and Mark, Lori, and I, along with our family and friends walk the red carpet to the most amazing night of my life.
January flies by at warp speed. Over a year prior I had committed to working in Poland (that would be in Europe, not Ohio). As much as I loved my new condo and being home for the festivities, it was time to move on.
I left for Warsaw, Poland on February 2, 2020. I left with a commitment to a company called English Wizards. I arrived in Warsaw February 3rd and checked into my Airbnb I had rented in the suburb of Ursus for 3 weeks. I arrived with no job placement and not knowing what city I might end up in. Within the first 2 weeks, I had 2 job opportunities in Warsaw city center teaching Business English. I decided I would stay in Warsaw so now I needed to find an apartment closer to where I would be working. Little did I know that by mid-March, it wouldn’t matter my location as my work would become remote. By the 3rd week of February, I was teaching Business English at 3 different companies and had found a flat in the Wola District of Warsaw, walking distance to all my classes.
March 13, 2020…Poland announces it will close its borders and go into a strict lockdown for 14 days. This means all my classes will now be remote. Hello, Zoom…not familiar with video conferencing, I had no choice but to be a quick study. I thought I would hate remote teaching, but I soon discovered it wasn’t that bad…until you have Wi-Fi/internet issues. Remote teaching also gave me the opportunity to pick up more classes than if I had to travel between companies. The last two weeks of the month weren’t anything to write home about, just teaching, walking to nearby restaurants for carry-out as they were closed to dine-in and trips to the supermarket…until March 28th when I learned that a person that was once near and dear to my heart was in ICU with coronavirus. April 1st, coronavirus claimed the first victim that I knew personally, someone that I used to love…. A virus unknown to the world until a couple of short months ago. A couple of short months that changed the world. A couple of short months that changed me.
I never dreamed I would see Vatican Square in Rome…vacant, Times Square in the city that never sleeps…silent, or the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris…empty. What I did see was YoYo Ma virtually offering a daily song on his cello, yoga instructors offering free online classes, museums giving virtual tours, adults taking time online to read books to children and friends getting together for virtual happy hours. I saw kindness, love, compassion, and joy. I saw people making the best of the times but before the year ends…it would be the worst of times.
April brought a continuation of restrictions in Poland, but not the strict lockdown of March. As I got out and walked around the neighborhood, spring was in the air. It was also encouraging to see restaurants setting tables up outside as indoor dining was still restricted. Even COVID-19 restrictions didn’t let me off the hook from obtaining my Temporary Residence Permit. I got my documents submitted by post and waited. Luckily, since I arrived prior to the lockdown and Poland was considered in a state of emergency, the normal 90-day limit on my tourist visa was extended until the state of emergency is lifted. April also brought virtual happy hours. This meant virtual trivia with my friends at Jacked Steakhouse in Warren, Ohio. It was something I looked forward to every week. Restrictions were eased by mid-April and I was looking forward to May in Warsaw.
Although many restrictions had been lifted, most of the museums were still closed so I spent my days walking around the city. One museum that was open sits on the outskirts of Warsaw. I hopped a bus and visited Wilanow Palace.
I was also contacted by a friend in the states I met while deep sea fishing in Florida. She said she had a friend that was living in Warsaw and hoped we could hook-up. That’s how I met Tamara. My walks took me to Lazienki Park, the Chopin Monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rondo Tybetu which has artwork dedicated to the “Free Tibet” movement painted under an overpass, the Keret House which is the narrowest house in Warsaw, various locations of Mur Getta or the walls of the Jewish Ghetto of WWII, and the outdoor markets. I met Tamara a couple times at the Vistula River where we enjoyed strolling along the river and stopping for drinks at the various bars and cafes along the way. It was announced that most of the restrictions in Poland would be lifted on June 6th.
June often found me heading to the Vistula to meet up with Tamara or just to walk and enjoy the views. Frequent visits to Old Town and since the museums were now open, I visited several, including the Neon Museum, Pinball Museum, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the Palace of Culture and Science.
I also went to the Warsaw Zoo which played a big role in hiding and transporting Jews during the war and the Jewish Cemetery. I discovered one of my personal favorites, the Vodka Museum. The Vodka Museum also has a rooftop bar, Koneser Bar ¾ which became a regular weekend hangout for me. It was announced that on June 13th Poland would open its borders which had been closed since March 15th. I finally went to a Bar Mleczny or “milk bar” which were popular eateries during communist times. I discovered an Indonesian restaurant in Old Town and the dishes took me back to the flavors of Bali. One of the highlights of June was receiving my first letter from the USA, from my cousins Buddy and Joey.
As you can see, June was a busy month which I spent exploring Warsaw. I also finally took my first trip out of the city. Not far from Warsaw is the city of Lublin. Auschwitz, in the city of Oswiecim, is probably the most well-known and widely visited “concentration camp” in Poland. When reading the book “Lilac Girls” I learned of Lublin and the Majdanek Concentration and Extermination Camp which sat on its outskirts. An easy day trip from Warsaw, I decided to pay a visit. The camp had seven gas chambers, 2 wooden gallows, and approximately 227 structures making it one of the largest Nazi-run camps.
The camp operated from October 1, 1941, until July 22, 1944. It was captured nearly intact because the SS had no time to destroy it due to the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army. Most of the incriminating evidence of war crimes remained. The building and grounds are now known as The Majdanek State Museum. It is a memorial museum and education center founded in the fall of 1944. It is devoted entirely to the memory of the atrocities committed in the network of camps during World War II and was the first of its kind in the world. Visiting Majdanek is an experience I will not soon forget.
Wow, how did we get to the middle of Summer? July in Warsaw brought beautiful weather and many trips to the river and Old Town where I finally visited the Royal Castle. I discovered the night market which was the happening place to hang out on weekend evenings and a mere 10-minute walk from my flat. I wandered the Praga District across the river and strolled galleries in Plac Konesera, which also happens to be the location of Bar Koneser 3/4, so of course, I stopped in on occasion. I became a regular at the Tapas Gastrobar next to my house.
I found out that Poland had beautiful lavender fields and took a day trip to Zyrardow to visit a lavender farm. I still didn’t have my temporary residency, so it would have been difficult to travel outside of Poland in the EU because of my “expired tourist visa”. This turned out to be a good thing because I was able to visit so much of this beautiful country.
August 1,1944 5:00 pm…the “W” Hour – the codename for Operation Tempest in German-occupied Warsaw. In Warsaw, the month of August kicks off with remembrance of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising. Every year at 5pm alarm signals and sirens blare, public transit, buses, trams, cars, and pedestrians stop in silence. It was quite the experience to witness this. Also celebrated in August is Polish Armed Forces Day. I got to hear President Duda speak and had the opportunity to walk around the displays and meet current and former military personnel.
I treated myself to a birthday lunch at the Michelin rated U Fukiera in Old Town. I dried lavender I got at the lavender farm in July and infused some gin and made lavender simple syrup. I took a day trip to Sochaczew and visited the narrow-gauge rail museum which included a train ride to the Kampinos Forest and a picnic. On the coronavirus front, Poland banned 45 countries from crossing its borders.
September found me on a “class trip” to the city of Lodz. A trip organized by my students at AXA Insurance. What a great day we had touring the city, eating, drinking and even a tuk-tuk ride. The first weekend in September, I caught a train to the northern city of Ketrzyn. From here I took a taxi to Gierloz, the location of Wilczy Szaniec or Wolf’s Lair which is the abandoned site of Hitler’s Eastern Front Headquarters. I stayed on-site in a renovated bunker and explored the area for a day and a half. Then I returned to Ketrzyn for another day of exploration. Here I visited a Christmas Bulb factory and accidentally crashed an office party at my hotel. After crashing the party and a few nips of vodka, I was led on a 20-minute trek to see some street art. Piotr told me it was a Banksy…not likely, but it was a fun evening. Before the month’s end, I had discovered Kilometer Zero in Warsaw, went to a Viking Festival and sampled mead, visited the POLIN, and viewed “The Poisoned Well” at the National Museum.
The Poisoned Well was a controversial temporary exhibit featuring Pope John Paul II holding a massive rock and standing in a pool of red water. Tamara and I spent a rainy Sunday eating hot dogs and watching the Warsaw Mets play American Football. I also took on several more classes to start the fall semester. Most importantly in September, I voted and took my ballot to the US Embassy to be sent to the Trumbull County Board of Elections.
Welcome to October and the 4th quarter of 2020. October started out with a fabulous trip to the Baltic sea. The tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia kept me entertained for 5 days. I enjoyed strolls on the beach and sipping wine at cafes in Sopot. I also walked the longest wooden pier in Europe and saw the crooked house. I took a train from Sopot to Hel Peninsula and then a ferry boat to Gdynia where I wandered the waterfront. I spent a half-day in Gdansk Old Town and took a bus to Westerplatte, a peninsula in Gdansk which is the site of the first battle of WWII. I witnessed glorious sunrises over the Baltic Sea and hope to return to the tri-cities. I guess you could also say October took me to “Hel” and back.
Returning to Warsaw my classes were in full swing, and I had new roommates, Valeria, and Nikita from Belarus. Vish from India has been my roommate since I moved in. Well, Valeria had a small incident that ended up bonding us together. She decided to clean the exhaust screen from our stove and figured the best place to do was the bathtub. Next thing I know, I hear someone (Valeria) crying. I leave my room to investigate and she is on the phone to Nikita explaining/crying in Russian that she “broke” the tub. She didn’t really “break” the tub, but whatever combination of chemicals she was using kinda sorta started to make a hole in the bottom of the bathtub. By now Vish has also come from his room and we are trying to tell her not to worry that we will figure it out. Luckily, Nikita works in the construction industry and he was able to repair/patch the area, repaint and seal and you would never know anything ever happened. That little incident formed a bond between us, and we have all become great friends as well as roomies.
But this is where October takes a slight downward turn. We have another roommate, and he came home one day and announced he had tested positive for coronavirus. The only symptoms we noticed were a slight cough. He also informed us that he had to quarantine for 10 days and would turn our phone numbers into the health department. He stayed mostly in his room for the next 10 days and well that is pretty much it as far as our quarantine. No one else developed any symptoms or got tested. I did have one day I felt like I had a hangover, but I did have a couple drinks with the other roomies the night before…so, who knows. I wouldn’t think a couple drinks could give me a hangover. Things in Poland are about to get a little worse as the number of infections took a steep upward swing as it was in most of Europe. Restrictions were once again tightened. Then an announcement regarding a ruling on abortions was made and this triggered protests across the country. It was called a Women’s Strike and marches took place. The largest one was scheduled for Friday, October 30th in Warsaw. One of the starting points was just a few blocks from my house, so I decided to go and check it out. I witnessed a peaceful march but did not go with the crowd to their destination.
November rolls in with controversy. All Saints Day, November 1st is a National Holiday in Poland and people go to the cemetery to lay flowers and candles on the graves of their loved ones. With the Women’s Strike protests still going on (they started October 22nd) and coronavirus infections increasing, the government, at the last minute decided to close the cemeteries from October 31st to November 2nd which affected flower producers and vendors. This sparked more protests on November 1st. Protests/Marches continued through December 13th protesting not only the women’s issue but also protests by farmers and teachers, protests against the church, and protests regarding coronavirus restrictions. I’m not sure why or how they finally ended. Between the weather getting cold, the protests, and the restrictions, I had a quiet November. I spent one Sunday afternoon walking around Fort Bema. It was a perfect fall day, and the trees were still changing their leaves. During the month, I also went for a couple massages. I got invited to and attended a Thanksgiving Dinner. We also prepared a turkey dinner in our flat the weekend after Thanksgiving and had a few people over.
November 30th, I returned to Wilanow so I could see the Royal Garden of Light display. It did not disappoint, but oh my it was cold and that cup of grzane wino (mulled wine) sure did hit the spot. Meanwhile, in the USA, the presidential election is turning into the worst of times….
December arrives and it seems like most people are counting the days until they can kick 2020 right out the door. At my flat, we started doing a little Friday night thing. We would pick a cuisine and prepare a meal together and then enjoy some cocktails. Sometimes just us and sometimes with friends. Warsaw was starting to prepare for Christmas and lights and decorations were going up all over the city. I was considering a trip to Istanbul over Christmas, but one day Valeria came home and said, “Let’s go to Zakopane” for Christmas. So, I booked the train tickets, and she booked our rooms. We would take an overnight train and arrive Christmas morning. The first couple of weeks of December were quite temperate, and it was fun getting out and seeing the city become festive. I even saw a Salvation Army Red Kettle and bell ringer.
I made it a priority to get to Old Town to see it in all its festive glory. Of course, I picked the coldest, most windy day we had. Again, the grzane wino was just what I needed. We continued our Friday night cooking and cocktails. We put up a few decorations. I continued my massages.
The next thing we knew, it was time to leave for Zakopane and Christmas. Zakopane was the Aspen of Poland. The mountains were beautiful. We trekked 3 hours up the mountain and back on Christmas day in light snow. I fell twice coming down and the next day thought I had been hit by a truck. Massage when I got back to Warsaw. We had a beautiful Christmas holiday in the Tatra Mountains. Sadly, the week of Christmas, I lost 3 friends. All non-covid.
We finished the year out by having a small New Year’s Eve party…champagne, pork & sauerkraut and old lang syne as we welcomed in 2021.
2020, truly… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”