Here I sit on a frigid morning with a steaming cup of joe staring at a blank page. It is a mere five days until 2022 and 23 months of living abroad during a global pandemic. Like last year, I am again struggling with this post. I wrote about 2020 based on the theme of duality, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, taken from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. While some may say 2021 was still the best and worst of times, for me, it was a very good year. I struggle to say that as I know so many were/are still struggling with the fall-out from Covid 19. I am sure I stepped on some toes and angered people when I wrote about why I was thankful for a global pandemic. In the beginning, I felt guilty about all the fun things I was doing. Then I reminded myself that these opportunities don’t always come around twice, and life really is short.
I read a quote from Diane Ackerman, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width as well.” That summed it up for me. I couldn’t control the state of other people’s happiness or unhappiness for that matter. Once you realize you can’t go about your life living it to please others, you can stop feeling guilty about enjoying yours. I am where I am because I made a choice to be here. I won’t feel guilty for living and enjoying my reality. Is my life perfect? Fuck no, but I am going to make the best of every opportunity that comes my way. 2021 ticked a few bucket list items and saw some dreams come true. I as begin my year in review, know firstly, I write for myself. It’s what I enjoy, and I love reliving moments of my life. Secondly, I write to hopefully give anyone interested some insight into other people, cultures, and another view on life. As I roll back to January 2021, remember, this is my reality, my perception of my life in 2021. We all choose our own realities. I just happen to choose to make the best of times….
After spending Christmas in the Tatra Mountains and the southern Polish city of Zakopane, I rang in the New Year at home with my flatmates and friends. We represented Poland, the USA, India, and Belarus. I made pork and sauerkraut, played Auld Lang Syne, did long-distance shots with friends in the states, and was overwhelmed with new year wishes from friends around the globe. January was a mostly quiet month in the +48 (country code for Poland) and we had an arctic blast hit us mid-month. The beauty of it is the way Poles embrace the weather. I found myself in Old Town on a snowy Sunday enjoying mulled wine and hot cherry vodka outside in a blizzard. I learned the Polish word for winter which is Zima. I love this word as it was also a favorite beverage back in the day. By the end of the month, the world was entertaining themselves with “Bernie’s mittens”.
I spent the last snowy Saturday of January at the Warsaw Zoo popping a selfie with the rhinoceros.
February marked one year I had been living in Poland. It continued to be a winter wonderland in Warsaw. Not going out much I had plenty of time to read and did find a coffee festival going on early in the month. In Poland, we celebrate Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday (not to be confused with Fat Tuesday). This year it fell on February 11th. Tłusty Czwartek is also called pączek day as everyone buys pączek or filled doughnuts, so I had to go out to buy mine. My favorite has a rose filling. The weather finally broke near the end of the month, and I went to the Palace of Culture and Science to a spider and scorpion exhibition. The Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most recognizable buildings in Warsaw.
It is also a source of controversy as it, on the initiative of Joseph Stalin, was a “gift of the Soviet people for the Poles”. This month I also tried my hand at making nalewka which is made by macerating fruits and sugar in vodka and letting them age. It was also at the end of this month I was contacted by English Wizards to see if I was interested in spending seven weeks on the Black Sea in Bulgaria at a youth language camp. This was especially interesting to me as I had hosted a Bulgarian student in my home 18 years ago.
After a slow start to March, I interviewed and accepted the summer job at Z Camp, the youth language and sports camp on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria. I would get to check off country #38 and hopefully catch up with a couple of the “kids” I met 18 years ago. My flatmate from India moved out and a couple from Vietnam moved in. Lucky me, Ben made homemade Pho Bo Tai for us one weekend.
I learned that in Poland for the Vernal Equinox primary school children make a doll called Marzanna. Marzanna is the Polish incarnation of the old Slavic goddess of winter, plague, and death. Marzanna is then set on fire and thrown in the river to ensure the timely arrival of spring. March ended rainy and chilly and me with a head cold.
On to April…with April came Easter and my first trip out of Warsaw since Christmas. I had learned through my students of people making a pilgrimage to the city of Częstochowa to Jasna Góra Monastery which is home to the famous Our Lady of Częstochowa painting also known as the Black Madonna.
I arrived at the monastery in time for Good Friday mass, but I had to return the next day to see the Black Madonna as it is only available for viewing during certain hours. I spent about an hour in the chapel with my thoughts and then lit a candle in memory of all those gone before me. Back in Warsaw, I also registered and received my “trusted profile” which basically just makes it easier for all things government-related in Poland. The first 3 weeks of the month being rainy and cool had me thinking I was back in NE Ohio, but finally, it felt like spring by the end of the month.
If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have noticed I love the Warsaw Trams. The first weekend in May brought out a vintage tram (circa 1959) which would run on line 36 (tourist route) during the spring and summer months. Despite being a rainy day, I was determined to ride the first run of the season. May also found me at “The Art of Banksy Without Limits” exhibition in the Praga district of Warsaw. The warmer weather just had me out exploring the city the rest of the month.
With the beautiful weather the first weekend in June, I traveled by train to Krakow, Poland. Krakow is home to the headquarters of English Wizards, the company I work for. In 1978 the historic center of Krakow was the first site in Poland to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Arriving late afternoon, I started my weekend by locating the EW office, and the next thing I knew I was on a pub crawl around the Kazimierz district of the city. Today trendy and hipster with vintage shops, indie galleries, and quirky bars, Kazimierz was once the historic center of Jewish life in Krakow.
About 75 km west of Krakow is the Polish city that was known as Oświęcim before WWII. Today, it is best known for Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration/extermination camps. My day trip here was a chilling experience I will never forget. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: “At the center of a huge landscape of human exploitation and suffering, the remains of the two camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were inscribed on the World Heritage List as evidence of this inhumane, cruel and methodical effort to deny human dignity to groups considered inferior, leading to their systematic murder.” It was recognized in 1979.
The following morning I took a bus to the 3rd UNESCO Heritage Site I would visit this weekend; Wieliczka Salt Mine. Recognized as a UNESCO Site in 1978, the salt mine produced table salt continuously from the 13th century until 2007. I spent the afternoon walking around Wawel Castle and the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the Kazimierz District.
I spent the rest of the month wandering Warsaw…the night market, evenings at the Vistula River, and trying to wrap things up before leaving the beginning of July for 2 months on the Bulgarian Coast. But, before the month ended, I made a spontaneous decision to go to Cairo Egypt when the camp was over and booked a one-way ticket, because who knows what else I might want to do.
July 2, 2021, I added country 38 to my list. I arrived in Burgas, Bulgaria and a driver took me to Kiten the location of Z Camp. The first three weeks of camp were a whirlwind, and I wasn’t sure I would survive. After a year and a half teaching Business English to adults, working all day with kids (8-15) in hot humid weather was exhausting. I fell into bed at night drained. As the days passed, I found my rhythm and had a great summer. I am headed back this year to do it all over again. Before month-end, I had decided to piggyback on my trip to Cairo and fly to Morocco.
Hello August! The last three weeks of camp seemed to fly by at warp speed and before I knew it it was time to bid everyone goodbye. I did have a few days before my flight from Sofia, Bulgaria to Cairo. I took the opportunity to go to Veliko Tarnovo to stay with Hristian, one of those “kids” I mentioned earlier. He showed me around his city, we made a side trip to Gabrovo his hometown. We met up with Tony, another one of those “kids”, visited his mom and his grandma. After a couple days, he put me on a bus for Sofia where I would spend the night before flying out to Cairo the next day.
Cairo – colorful, crazy, and chaotic. I was staying in Giza at the Giza Plateau. My room overlooked the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. It was a big tick on my bucket list, country 39 and a first on the African continent. It was mindboggling. It was surreal. It was a dream come true and more. I did many things around Cairo and took a side trip to Alexandria, but nothing can describe sitting on my rooftop each evening and gazing at the oldest and only remaining wonder of the ancient world.
On the first of September, I left Cairo and flew to Casablanca, Morocco adding country number 40. Even though I know Rick’s Café in the movie Casablanca was just a set made in Hollywood, how could I go to Casablanca and not go to Ricks? I also went to the Hassan II Mosque which is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world. 2 days in Casablanca was plenty and from there I took the train to Marrakech where I had booked a Riad (guesthouse) in the heart of the Medina. Normally, the great square Jemaa el-Fnaa is filled with thousands of people watching magicians and snake charmers, eating, shopping, listening to storytellers and bands, or getting henna tattoos, it was virtually empty due to the pandemic. But that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Marrakech was as exotic and exciting as I expected even without the tourist crowds. The highlight was my Moroccan Hammam experience. I took a day trip to the Ourika Valley which is a valley in the Moroccan High Atlas along the Ourika River. It is located around 30 km from Marrakech and is essentially populated by Berber people speaking Shilha. The next day I was scheduled to fly back to Poland but got word my flight had been canceled and they couldn’t get me out for three days. Happily, my Riad was able to accommodate me, and I enjoyed 3 more days in Marrakech. One of those days I took a day trip to Essaouira which is a coastal city on the north coast of Africa and dined on fresh grilled lobster.
I arrived back in Warsaw in mid-September and jumped right back into teaching my English classes. Luckily, most didn’t start until October when the new semester was scheduled. Between bi-weekly (I’m never sure if this is every two weeks or twice a week, but every other week in this case) massages, eating a lot of pho, wandering Old Town, and teaching, October brought the Van Gogh Immersive Experience to Warsaw which I saw on its opening day.
I also received my Karta Pobytu or temporary residence card for Poland making me a resident until 2024. A new food hall opened 2 blocks from my flat in a restored facility, Fabryka Norblina, that was once a silver-plating factory.
Most exciting for me was my 15 minutes of fame, when my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle, ran a front-page story on my travels/life as a teacher. All in all a very good month.
Somehow November arrived and the last two months of the year were a whirlwind. November 1st in Poland is Wszystkich Świętych or All Saints Day. People from all over Poland travel to their home cities to lay flowers (mostly chrysanthemums) and light candles at the graves of their loved ones. Going to the cemetery after dark is a sight to behold with thousands of glowing candles.
November 11th is Narodowe Święto Niepodległości or National Independence Day. After ceasing to exist for 123 years, it commemorates the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 from the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. In Warsaw, it is celebrated with an Independence March which I attended with my friend Tamara and over 100,000 of our closest friends. The march which starts near the Palace of Culture and ends at the National Stadium was a sea of people decked in white and red, carrying the flag, lighting flares, and celebrating their freedom. I also discovered a restaurant that served Chinese food that was as close to anything I had in China.
I need to jump back to 2006 for the next part of the story. Tom and I were on a cruise that was a full transit of the Panama Canal. Prior to the cruise, I started chatting on a cruise site with another woman who would be on the same cruise with her husband. During the cruise, we met up and for the past 15 years, although not seeing each other in person, have kept up correspondence through social media. I have also “met” some of her family and friends through Facebook.
Well Barb and Danny (from the Panama Cruise), her sister Kay and friends Diana, Dawn, and Randy were coming to Europe for a Viking River Cruise highlighting European Christmas Markets. The cruise was originating in Amsterdam. Well, she didn’t need to ask me twice and I flew to Amsterdam to hang out with them for a few days. After 15 years, we met again and had a blast and I got to meet my Facebook friends live and in person. What a great way to roll into December.
I can honestly say that December made my year truly complete. The first weekend, Warsaw lit up in all the seasons finest. I strolled through Old Town, watched the ice skaters, sipped mulled wine, and then walked the Royal Route past the castle and the Presidential Palace and up Nowy Świat to home.
Remember those friends in Amsterdam? Well, their cruise ended in Basel Switzerland and then they took the train to Paris for a few days. Well, they twisted my arm, no really, they did…so I flew to Paris for a whirlwind weekend with them. Returning from Paris, the spirit of the season really kicked in.
I had long video chats with friends back in the states, my students excitedly shared their Christmas traditions with me and I learned all about Wiglia (Christmas Eve Dinner). Christmas Eve was spent with Tamara as we wandered Old Town enjoying hot cherry vodka, listening to buskers, and feeling the Christmas Spirit as light snow fell on the city. After Christmas, Laura, one of my co-workers from Z-Camp came to Warsaw and we spent a mad evening at the bar at the Vodka Museum, Koneser Bar ¾. I ended the year at the Tapas Bar next to my flat sipping champagne and watching the sky light up with fireworks.
If you stuck with me this far, thank you! I started this a week ago, finally finished. You are all an important part of my journey. It was a year to remember. Peace…Love…Light and Lots of Laughter in 2022.