Moments of My Life – Every Face Has a Story

Moments of My Life – Every Face Has a Story

Occasionally, looking back at my travel photos tends to make me melancholy.  Then I start looking forward and contemplating my dreams, the destinations I haven’t yet visited and those I want to return to.  There’s a quote (author unknown) that says, “It’s better to look back on life and say, I can’t believe I did that…than to look back and say I wish I did”.  When I look back, sometimes I can’t believe it’s my life I am looking at.  Did I really do all those things, go all those places, and meet all those people?  Occasionally, a few tears are shed.  Not necessarily in sadness, although I will probably never see most of these faces again, I am happy that they crossed my path and left something on my heart and in my soul.  Here are a few faces and their stories:

I moved to China in August 2015.  Not really knowing what to expect.  Not skilled in the use of chopsticks and certainly not prepared for squatty potties, I landed in a rural village that wasn’t even named on a map in Shandong Province…Xiashan.  Xiashan is considered part of the city of Weifang which is a 1.5-hour bus ride away.

The rural village was the epitome of “build it and they will come”.  While the 4-5000 residents of the village lived in simple homes, it was surrounded by 100’s of high-rise “ghost” apartments, one of which I lived in.  Since the newly built school was a boarding school and when school was in session, the population of the community more than doubled because of the student population, I guess they were hoping that the families that traveled (some over 4 hours) to Xiashan would invest in the real estate.   I soon discovered I would be teaching grades 1, 2, and 4 at Wiefang-Xiashan Bilingual School.   The students arrived staggered by grades as the small community couldn’t handle the huge influx all at once.  Soon all had arrived, and it was time for the school year to kick off.  We had a huge outdoor opening ceremony.

It was here that I first met Li Zi Han, aka “fish lips” because she was prone to making fish lips whenever her photo was taken.  She made up to me that day and I soon found out I would be her English teacher as she was in grade one.  She looked for me every day at the start of school and anytime in between.  Whenever I taught in her classroom, she always tried to be my helper.  She loved music and was always dancing.  She told me, with the help of a Chinese teacher interpreting, that she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up.  Her parents were physicians and I’m not sure her dream would be accepted by them.

I visited the school a couple years after I left and met up with her again.  She still had dreams of dancing, but what has become of her since?  Will she follow her dream?  Questions I will probably never have answers to.  Her face will forever be the one that I think about when I reminisce about my days in Xiashan.

 

The “Roof of the World”, the “Land of Snows”, “Bod”, or Tibet, the highest region on earth with an average elevation of 4,380 m (14,000 ft) has always fascinated me.  While Tibet is governed by China and it is known as Tibet Autonomous Region, there is tension regarding its political status.  There are dissident groups that are active in exile, along with the current or 14th Dalai Lama who went into exile in 1959 and currently resides in Dharamshala, India.  Living in Hunan Provence at the time, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to visit Tibet.  I also discovered as a foreigner I could not enter Tibet as an individual but must enter as part of a group with an authorized guide.  In July 2016, after securing a Tibet Travel Permit and finding a guide and tour group that fit my agenda, I took a 53-hour train ride from Guangzhou, China to Lhasa, Tibet.  I was met by an armed guard exiting the train and escorted to an area where my passport and travel permit were checked.  It was here I was met by my group’s guide and was taken to my hotel in Lhasa.  I arrived a couple of days before the tour started so I could have some free time in Lhasa.

One of the must-do items when choosing my itinerary was an overnight at Mount Everest Base Camp.  Everest Base Camp is either of two base camps on opposite sides of Mount Everest.  South Base Camp is in Nepal at an altitude of 5,364 meters (17,598 ft) (28°0′26″N 86°51′34″E), and North Base Camp is in Tibet at 5,150 metres (16,900 ft)  (28°8′29″N 86°51′5″E).  These camps are rudimentary campsites on Mount Everest that are used by mountain climbers during their ascent and descent.  Supplies are shipped to the South Base Camp by sherpas or porters, and with the help of animals, usually yaks.  The North Base Camp has vehicle access (at least in the summer months).  Climbers typically rest at base camp for several days for acclimatization to reduce the risks and severity of altitude sickness.  Being in Tibet, we had vehicle access to base camp.  The road to Everest Base Camp from Lhasa covers 613 kilometers and passes through Gyantse, Shigatse, Lhatse and Tingri.  It was on this road in the village of Mêmo in the Qomolangma (Tibetan name for Everest) Nature Preserve, I had my first glimpse of the mighty Mount Everest.  Qomolangma National Nature Preserve houses two of the poorest counties in China.  Local livelihoods depend predominantly on nomadic herding. It was also here that I stepped behind a concrete slab and put on my best OMG face as I pointed to the mountain.

 

I then looked down and saw a pair of black eyes looking up at me.  The eyes belonged to a small Nomad girl.  She was dressed in just a t-shirt and smiled at me with chapped cheeks.  She reached for me, and I picked her up and one of my travel mates snapped a photo of us.  I ended up buying Tibetan prayer flags from her mother.  Cathy, these are the ones hanging on your porch.

“Nomad children today hold the key to future wise use of the rangelands and continuance of the nomadic way of life.  Their education and health is critical.  They must learn new skills for handling animals and acquire the knowledge and expertise that will allow them to continue to use the rangelands with dignity.   As long as nomads, imbued with a sense of the sacredness of the landscape, are allowed to move in harmony with their animals across the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya, there is hope for the future. If we help enable this to happen, young nomads will have heroes they can identify with, and the world will be a better place for all of us.” (Daniel J. Miller, The World of Tibetan Nomads)

 

I often think of those chapped cheeks and black eyes and wonder what the last 6 years have brought her.  A face I will never forget.

It was Qingming Festival in China (April 2018).  I decided to take the time and check a bucket list item, to see Laolongtou (老龙头) or the ‘Old Dragon Head’.  This is where the Great Wall of China begins\ends at the Bohai Sea.

The Qingming or Ching Ming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, is a traditional Chinese festival that falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar.  This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4 or 5 April each year.  Laolongtou (Old Dragon’s Head), so named because the Great Wall here resembles a dragon drinking water from the sea is located three miles (five kilometers) south of Shanhaiguan and about 190 miles (305 km) away from Beijing.

The Laolongtou Great Wall was built in 1381 under the supervision of Qi Jiguang, a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).  It was an important line of defense against enemies coming from both the land and the sea.  After the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), its military function faded, and it turned into a great tourist destination, attracting numerous visitors to enjoy the seascape and surrounding constructions.

My teaching assistant Alice accompanied me on this trip.  After visiting Laolongtou, we decided to travel about 15 km and see the Jiumenkou section of the Great Wall of China.  The Jiumenkou Great Wall was built in 1382 by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in this strategic area of a valley that that was an important pass allowing access inland.  It was built during the reign of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398).  This portion of wall is the only part of the Great Wall that crosses a river.  So it is a unique section of the 8,850-km (5,500-mile) Ming Great Wall that stretched from Hushan on the North Korean border almost to Xinjiang far in the west. It also has a troop tunnel 1,027 meters long carved out under the wall perhaps to house troops or for use to hide troops in the event of an attack . It is thought 1000 soldiers could stay in it.

While walking around this area we stopped in a temple, and we met an 83-year-old monk.  She invited us to her simple home to share some fruit.  Since I had Alice with me to translate, I thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.   We spent about an hour with her, eating fruit and listening to her stories.  Another face, another soul that has crossed my path that I often think about and wonder.

After living 4 years in China, I made the decision to leave in 2019 and move to Poland in 2020.  Before moving to Poland and before spending the holidays in the states for the first time in 8 years, I decided to return to the island that stole my soul…Bali.  This time the plan was to live there for 4-6 months.  I also wanted to spend some time volunteering at a Balinese school for special needs children.  I ended up spending 6 weeks living and working at Yayasan Widya Guna in Bedulu, Bali, Indonesia.  Yayasan Widya Guna is an Indonesian non-profit organization whose focus is its children’s learning center.  It serves Balinese children who come from unfortunate situations.  They have taken in orphans and provided them with food, shelter, and an education.  They support children with all ranges of physical and/or mental disabilities, including but not limited to, downs, autism, and cerebral palsy. They also offer English lessons to the village children after their regular school day is over, free of charge.  Its mission is to: Educate the underprivileged Balinese children to be independent and bring them a better future with their own knowledge, culture, and skills.  Ketut Sadia is the founder of the school.  He encourages volunteers to use his homestay.  Just like at Kenari House, I paid for a room in the homestay.  By using the homestay of the school, the monies you pay for accommodation directly support the school.  Also, in exchange for your volunteer time, the homestay provides 3 meals a day at no additional cost.

On day 1 arriving at the school, noticing a new face, I was bombarded by kids wanting a hug, asking “what’s your name?” … you get the picture.  I soon learned that each morning, the day is started with meditation.  The meditation is guided by a teacher at the school and consists of 30 minutes of music to which the children have learned simple movements such as tapping the head lightly with their fingers and progressing down their body.  I was amazed how the children followed the guidance and were quite calm at the end of the 30 minutes which concluded with a lively dance routine.  It was during this time I also noticed many adults who seemed to be parents of some of the children.  Indeed they were and I learned they spend part of the school day on-site and help with things such as cleaning, maintenance, food preparation, and preparation of the canang sari or daily offerings.  I was assigned to my classroom which as it turns out, was the “active” group…think herding kittens.

One of my students was a smallish boy named Juna.  Mostly non-verbal and had a physical disability that affected his mobility.  Although he managed to walk and run, I was always waiting for him to topple over.  His father spent most of the day at the school and was always concerned with Juna’s welfare and assisting the teachers with Juna as much as possible.

They came and went from school on a motorcycle.  Each day as they were leaving they would pass me on the road and stop.  I would stop and Juna would give me a crooked smile and a high five.  Sadly, on April 5th I awoke to the news that Juna had passed away…fly high sweet boy!

So many beautiful faces have crossed my path during my journey “Down the Rabbit Hole”.   As I look back on my travel photos, I want to tell their story.  I wonder where they are now.  What are they doing?  Are they happy?  Have they followed their dreams?  Are they still alive?  Some are nameless, some I still have contact with, most I will never see again, and some I never formally met, but they have all touched me in some way.   I want to remember how I felt, where I was and what I was doing when our paths crossed.  My life has been blessed with these beautiful people.

As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have despised the phrase “new normal”…an oxymoron for sure.  There is no such thing as a new normal.  There is the here and now we are living in, and life inevitably changes.  No, I’m not going to talk about the pandemic.  Most would disagree with what I have to say anyways…so it’s a moot point.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for over a month.  I’m going to pause here for a moment and ask that everyone make a conscious effort to NOT say, “the Ukraine”.  Those 3 little letters can make people from that country cringe.  Ukraine is a country, a nation, a recognized state, it is just Ukraine.  We don’t say “the” Poland or “the” France.  Okay, yes, I know we say the United States and the Netherlands.  I can explain, plural names get “the” tacked on.  “The” Ukraine is the way Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times.  Before becoming independent, the official name was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and it did have those 3 little letters.  If you have asked yourself how you can help, drop those 3 little letters when referring to Ukraine.  I have done it myself and in this part of the world, I have been corrected.  Another small change would be to refer to the capital by its Ukrainian spelling, Kyiv, rather than the Russian transliteration Kiev.  Two simple things you can do and make a difference.

Why did I bring up that dreaded phrase, new normal?  Over a month into the war, I fear that soon, unless you are directly impacted, it is going to become “normal”.  The world is going to become complacent.  Merriam Webster tells us complacent is marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; unconcerned, apathetic, indifferent.  As the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months turn to the unknown, will we become apathetic and indifferent to the plight of these people just like we have so many times before them?  I’m not pointing fingers because I am guilty as charged.  When the war broke out, everyone was gung-ho to help.  I rushed to the train stations, scurried around passing out juice boxes, asking what was needed, and hurried off to a store to fill these needs making purchases with contributed dollars.  Then I found out about Pawel and the #pinball4ukraine initiative.

My friends, my family, and my hometown newspaper all got on board and soon we had thousands of dollars to help.  Pawel is still working hard to find out where and what current needs are.  You can still contribute by sending contributions to PayPal@flippery.org.pl.  This is all great, but what next?  What can I do from here on out?  The mass exodus from Ukraine into Poland has slowed but refugees are still arriving daily.

Wandering through the train station it is “normal’ now to see people sleeping on the floor waiting for a train to somewhere.  We are still living “it” in Warsaw and across Poland, but my guess is that in the west people were shocked, they donated, they did what they could and now life goes on.  I’m not condemning this because I don’t have an answer for what’s next?  The pace of the first few weeks of the war couldn’t continue.  I’m thankful for people like Pawel who haven’t slowed their pace but who are searching for new ways to help besides just being a people mover.

An internal conflict in Afghanistan began in 1978 between anti-communist Islamic guerrillas and the Afghan communist government (aided in 1979-1989 by Soviet troops).  A US-led invasion launched in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 was the beginning of the Afghanistan War (2001-2014).  Everyone (both for and against) was up in arms when we pulled our troops from Afghanistan (completed August 30, 2021), yet the conflict continues, and it only seems to come up as fuel for the fire in political debates.

A peaceful uprising in 2011 against the president of Syria turned into a full-scale civil war leaving an estimated half a million people dead.  22 million have fled their country and 6.9 million are internally displaced with more than 2 million living in tented camps with limited access to basic services.  Although Russia was involved in a ceasefire in March 2020, it doesn’t appear the war will end anytime soon.

A few short days ago Azerbaijan has said it is ready for peace talks with Armenia.  I’m going to hazard a guess and say most people probably don’t even know about a conflict between those two countries.  I just happen to have a flatmate from Azerbaijan and a student from Armenia.  “In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh which killed more than 6,500 people.  A ceasefire deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin saw Armenia cede swaths of territory to Azerbaijan and Moscow deploy a peacekeeping contingent to the mountainous region.  Last week, Yerevan (capital of Armenia) and Moscow accused Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) of violating a ceasefire in the Russian contingent’s zone of responsibility.  A significant flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh could pose a challenge for Moscow, at a time when tens of thousands of Russian troops are engaged in Ukraine.  Moscow has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and a land corridor linking it with Armenia.  Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  The ensuing conflict killed about 30,000 people.” (Aljazeera, March 29, 2022)  And…the conflict continues.

Although my student from Armenia has been in Poland for several years, he told me he has times when his emotions run the gamut regarding the war in Ukraine.  He told me he must admit that sometimes he gets angry.  He explained that he does want peace for Ukraine, but when he sees basically the whole world trying to aid the Ukrainian refugees, he gets angry and wonders where “the world” was when Armenia needed them.  He said he feels that people think it is normal for there to be war in “his” part of the world.

Today, chatting with a student from one of my classes, she said she has felt a bit down lately.  As she goes about her day-to-day life, she fears the fate of Ukraine and its people is becoming part of our normal routine…that we are accepting that this is just the way it is going to be.  She said it’s not that people don’t care anymore, but can we or what should we be doing?  I told her I have been feeling the same way.  I’m not sure what else I can do except support the efforts of #pinball4ukraine.  If there are people in Poland, where well over 2 million refugees have settled, who are feeling like this, I can only imagine the rest of the world can easily push it from the forefront of their minds.

I don’t have any answers to my questions.  My comments are merely my opinion and the stories I tell are factual.  I can’t wrap my head around the things I have been exposed to in the last 5 weeks.  My emotions have taken a roller coaster ride but the one emotion I haven’t had is fear… I can’t fathom the fear some of these people, especially the children have felt and not only Ukrainian children.

I had a student tell me she took her daughter, age 5, with her to a shelter to deliver children’s clothing.  Alice cried.  She couldn’t understand why these children had to live with 400 other people and didn’t have their own homes.  She had questions her mother wasn’t prepared to answer.  Another student told me his young sons were very scared when the war broke out.  His older son who I believe is 10, is quite a history buff about WWII.  He was fearful about what could happen to Poland.  Again, young children with questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.  He said now they won’t even talk about what is happening.

Some mornings, recently, I wake up with little on my agenda and wonder what I should be doing.  I always have things I can do for myself, but is there a need at some shelter or the train station I should consider?  Frankly, I simply want to do nothing but curl up with a book.  Then a little bit of guilt creeps in.  Sometimes I can push it aside, sometimes I check the websites to see if help is needed anywhere, sometimes I put the pen to the paper which is where I have been the last couple of days.  It doesn’t answer the whys or the what’s but it does help me put things in perspective.  It helps me think, it pushes me to research things happening in other parts of the world that when you think about it are really all intertwined.  I have decided that accumulating knowledge can make a difference.  By understanding what is happening around the globe, maybe we can become a bit more empathic.

We are one human race.  War may not be the answer, but it has opened my eyes to the plight of people in Syria, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other places around the world.  I heard a comment, “I don’t care what happens in that part of the world but it’s terrible what is happening in Ukraine.”  I knew it wasn’t worth it to get into a heated discussion over this comment because I would get angry, and the other person would still feel the same way.  Will I soon hear, I don’t care what’s going on in Ukraine or is Ukraine enough like the “west” that people won’t stop caring.  I know it is starting to feel like a normal state of living.  I don’t like that feeling but I’m not sure what to do about it.  Maybe it is the natural evolution of feelings.  I know I’m not the only person feeling like this.

I guess all I can do is continue to educate myself, do what I can, where I can, and when I can.  I can remind myself this isn’t  “normal”.  I remind myself there are still people fleeing their homes and soldiers and civilians are dying for their country.  If you made it this far, thanks for reading my random thoughts as I try to clear my head.  If you use those 3 little letters when you talk about Ukraine, try to check yourself.  Remember the capital of Ukraine is Kyiv and most of all remember war isn’t normal.  I know that together, we can still make a difference.

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

I am currently located in Warsaw Poland.  Warsaw is no stranger to war.  During the German occupation (1939-1945), 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed, including museums, art galleries, theaters, churches, parks, castles, and palaces.  During the International Reparations Conference held in Paris in 1946, it is estimated that Poland’s material losses were 16.9 billion US dollars, and two-fifths of the country’s cultural property was destroyed.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Poland was forced to hand over 48% of its land to the Soviet Union due to international pressure from world powers.

Even after the 178,000 km² of land (48%) was turned over to the Soviet Union, Poland continued to be under the rule of the communist party following WWII.  The fall of the former Soviet Union took place on December 26, 1991, and on October 27, 1991, the first free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place.  This completed Poland’s transition from a communist party rule to a democratic political system, but it wasn’t until September 18, 1993, that the last Soviet troops left the country.

Poland and Ukraine share a border of 529 km (328 mi).  Why is this important?  On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.  On Saturday, February 26, 2022, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.  Little did I know at the time, this was just the beginning of what would become the world’s largest migrant crisis since WWII.  At the onset, the Polish government said they were prepared to take on up to 1 million refugees.  As I sit here typing, we are in the middle of day 24 of the War in Ukraine and nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine with over 1.9 million finding their way across the border into Poland.

What I am witnessing not only here in Warsaw, but all of Poland is a grassroots movement of epic proportion.  I never dreamed I would be living in a country and witnessing the effects of war up close and personal.  I am hundreds of kilometers away from the actual war, but the devastation can be seen in the eyes of those arriving who have no idea what their future will look like.  I also never dreamed this war would become personal to me.  My life, my heart, my soul…they have all been touched in uncountable ways through my travels.  My hope has always been to show friends, family, and anyone who happens to stumble across my social media what the world looks like through my eyes.  I want to tell the stories of the places I go, the things I do, but more importantly, I want to tell the stories of the people I meet.  I want you to know what their eyes tell me when I look into them.  I have cried a river over the last few weeks.  Not just because of the devastation of the war but I have witnessed a coming together of humanity that is close to indescribable.  Here is my story…

February 24, 2022, was a holiday in Poland,  Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday.  In Poland, everyone eats pączki on Fat Thursday.  I had spent the day before in a queue for 2.5 hours to get mine, but that’s another story for another time.  When I logged on to my classes that Thursday, no one was talking about how many pączki they had eaten, but that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine along with a question no one really wanted to voice, what does this mean to Poland?  I received many messages that day, asking, “how far are you from Ukraine?”, “are you safe?”, “do you have a plan to leave Poland?”.  I am a little over 300 km (186 miles) to Hrebenne which is a city near one of the border gates between Poland and Ukraine.  Yes, I am safe for now and feel very comfortable in Warsaw.  No, I don’t have a plan to leave Poland.  Other than some conversation about the situation during my classes, Thursday and Friday went along normally.  On Saturday, I learned there would be a protest/demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.

I arrived at the Russian Embassy about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of 18:00.  The road was still open to traffic.  People lined both sides of the street and cars and buses passing by showed support by sounding their horns.  All public transportation in Warsaw is also flying the Ukrainian flag and the flag of Warsaw.  As the crowd grew people continued to queue up along the roadside.  About 5 minutes before the start time, the police blocked the street to traffic and then told the crowd they could fill the street.  At this point, some speakers took to a small stage.  I didn’t understand what was being said but could feel the emotion of the crowd.  When I found Zaka, my flatmate, in the crowd, he was able to translate a few things.  There was a point when the crowd chanted peace in Ukraine and free Russia from Putin.  By the time we decided to leave, the crowd had grown exponentially.  What I experienced was people from many nations, men, women, and children all coming together in unity waving Polish and Ukrainian flags.  As I stood looking at the massive Russian Embassy flanked by Polish police, I realized this war was becoming personal to me.

My flatmate in Changning, China was from Moscow.  I enjoyed her Russian hospitality during my visit to Moscow in June of 2017. When I got home from the demonstration, I messaged her and told her I had attended.  Her response to me was, “all my friends and most of the people I know want the same thing – peace for Ukraine and freedom for Russia”.   Then I thought about my other Russian friend I met when I was living in Qingdao, China.

I read her words later that night, “I want to believe that there are more Russians who realize that we’re all responsible for this.  It’s just they’re chickening out because in this country you get jailed, tortured, and you disappear for speaking up.  Some have families and cats to feed, some are just greedy and are afraid of losing their businesses and reputation, but I guess that’s also understandable.  We’re all just trying to stay safe….Let’s just try not to hate each other personally”.  As I thought about my Russian friends, their words,  and all the Russian hate right now, it reminded me of how so many were anti-China at the beginning of the pandemic. Even more so now as no one knows if China will align itself with Russia, please remember there are good, kind people in Russia who don’t want this war any more than we do.

Saturday of the demonstration was also the day Tatiana, my cleaning lady, was scheduled.  She had returned to Lviv, Ukraine a month earlier to renew her Visa.  When the war broke out, she made the decision to remain in Ukraine with her family.  I didn’t hear from her again until March 13th.  She had returned to Warsaw but because her sons are between 18 & 60, they were obligated to remain in Ukraine.  Please keep the safety of her sons in your thoughts.

I usually email lessons to my students on Sunday for the following week,  As I was doing this, I thought about a student who although was living in Poland, was from Belarus.  It was in Belarus that it was reported that military vehicles had entered Ukraine through Senkivka.  This is the point where Ukraine meets Belarus and Russia.  I sent them a separate email asking how they were.  Their mother is Russian, they have family in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.  They told me their life was a living nightmare.  Of course, I can’t talk about Belarus without thinking of my former flatmate,  “my little one”, from Belarus.  This conflict is affecting people in ways that we can’t comprehend.  Suddenly, they are concerned about repercussions if they label themselves as “Belarusian” or “Russian” and may even be fearful of returning to their country as they may not be able to return to Poland.

Monday rolls around and this war continues to become personal.  Summer 2021 found me on the Black Sea in Kiten, Bulgaria.  I was working at a summer camp, and we had two campers from Ukraine.  I learned they had both taken refuge, one in a bomb shelter.  During the first week of March, I learned that one had made it out of the country safely.  The other, as of today, I have had no word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The war is becoming more real, more personal by the day.  I find myself hungry for information on the humanitarian efforts I know are going on in Warsaw and all over Poland.  In the first 4 days of the crisis, over 220,000 refugees crossed into Poland, many coming to Warsaw.  I discovered Warsaw had 28 collection points in the city.  The grassroots movement had begun.  Ordinary citizens were organizing these collection points and through the power of social media were able to let people know of immediate needs…blankets, diapers, food, and beverage to give to people as they crossed into Poland, etc.  At this point, I couldn’t report on what was going on in Ukraine, but I could share what the people of Poland were doing. The border town of Przemyśl greets refugees with food, beverages, clothes, blankets, books, and stuffed animals for the children.  Warsaw has 3 train stations which also have nearby bus stations.   There are reception points set up in these areas.   They provide the new arrivals with food and beverage and assist them in getting information regarding trains and buses to destinations beyond Warsaw and beyond Poland.  They point them to ATM machines, to first aid stations, and just try to provide a smile and a friendly face.   It may appear these places are unorganized, but trust me, it is organized chaos.  Think about it, Poland, a country of almost 38 million, and as of March 20, 2022, 1.95 million people have entered Poland.  This is a 5% increase in population in just 3 weeks.  Even more unbelievable is that about 300,000 are currently being sheltered in Warsaw, a city of 1.77 million.  If you do the math, that is a 17% increase in the population of my city.  I don’t think anyone could explain it better than David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, did when he was interviewed at the Warsaw Central Station.  When you see the images of families sleeping on the floor of the stations, please know they are making this choice.  They have already lost their homes and most of their personal belongings, not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return to their country, their homes.  They are choosing to “camp out” on floors instead of going to a shelter because they don’t want to miss the opportunity to catch the next train to somewhere…somewhere they may have family, somewhere that they may be starting a new future…a future they never thought about.

My first visit to the train station was 15 days ago, 10 days after the invasion.  This is what I saw there.  The place was full of people just arriving in Warsaw from Ukraine.  Many with glazed looks in their eyes, some crying, others looked exhausted, and many had their pets with them.  There were volunteers helping direct them to information points, they were walking around passing out sandwiches and drinks, etc.  It was a beehive of activity. I was just passing through on this day but made the decision I needed to find out how I could help.  I went outside and caught a tram home.  As I was arriving home I was in front of my building and a woman came up to me and said Apteka which is a pharmacy.  It was easiest for me to just walk her around the corner.  I said I only speak English.  She said, no English, Ukraine.  I managed to discover (thank you Google translate) she just arrived in Warsaw 4 days ago with her family.  She said the name of her city and said the word home and motioned that it was flattened.  I literally started to cry just as I got her to the pharmacy.  She told me “thank you” in Polish and all I could do was take her hands, look her in the eyes and say good luck.  Seeing these people, looking deep into their eyes is something I won’t ever forget.  When I got into my flat, I started searching and found a Facebook group that was organizing everything at the train stations.  I joined the group and continued scrolling Facebook.

As each day passes, this war affects me in many ways.  But most of all we are living it in Poland.  We are seeing the people arriving with just a simple bag of necessities or some with nothing but the clothes on their back, their children, and many even their pets.  I had a student tell me they wouldn’t be attending class one day as they were helping at the border.  She lives in a small village in the southeastern part of Poland.  She is the mother of 3 young children, I asked if I could share a few of her words.

“My life has changed a lot in the last few days.  I had the opportunity to be at the border to help two families from Ukraine.  I have been able to see people who want to escape the actions of a madman.  I could see the fear, despair, longing.  But I also saw love, solidarity, unity.  I was able to participate in building a temporary life anew.  I was able to observe terror which with time turns into hope despite the constant specter of evil and tragedy.

I cried with people powerless in the face of events that turned many dreams to dust.  Enjoyed the kids delighted with the Frozen towel and coloring book, whose fathers and brothers were left fighting for their freedom.  In the evening, I cried with relief, looking at my sleeping children, appreciating that such terrible things had not touched my loved ones.

In recent days, I have been observing people whose lives have changed dramatically.

I have no punch line.  I only have a solemn request that we continue to be able to show our heart to those who are NOW in a much more difficult situation than we are.  WHAT, NOW?  These are words that come back to me like a boomerang in recent days.  I don’t know my tomorrow.  I know my today. And I want to share my good “today” with those whose “yesterday” and “tomorrow” is gloomy.”

During my first year in Poland, I was always searching for interesting things to do.  I happened to discover Pinball Station, an interactive museum established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists.  That evening, as I was scrolling, I saw a post by Paweł, one of the founders of the museum.  It read (translated version),  “To everyone who wants to help refugees.  Pinball Station has launched a coach bridge between the border and Warsaw.  I, Paweł Nowak, have personally been to the border 5 times.  We have coaches and drivers available.  Today at 5 am we transported another 48 people.  In total, it is already about 150 people transported in two days.  We ask you to help raise money for the next transport.  Out of 150 people transported, there were only a few men, the rest were women and children, even babies.  I am determined, I am in constant contact with foreign countries, we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them.  Please help.”

Almost simultaneously as I am reading this, I received a private message from a friend asking if they could send me money to help.  Next thing I knew I had a couple more friends message me.  Since I only worked a half-day that coming Wednesday, I decided I would go to the Pinball Station to get more information.  I had turned the monies I received into cash (Polish Zloty).  My plan had been to leave a portion of the money to help with another transport.  Paweł wasn’t there, but the young lady working immediately got him on the phone to chat with me.  After a long (Paweł likes to talk) conversation, I felt that I could trust him, the project seemed to fit the request of my friends which was to help the refugees, and the amount of money they sent was almost the exact amount to sponsor a bus.  I made the decision to leave 3000 zł with the girl at the museum and hoped I could trust my gut.

This also left me with a few hundred zloty I could use to purchase things that were needed at the train station.  On March 11, 2022, I received photos from Paweł showing a bus full of people we helped bring to Warsaw from the border.  I was overcome with emotion knowing we made a difference.  Later that evening, I was contacted by my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle asking about life in Poland during the war.  I told them my story up until that point and that I planned to return to the train station the next day to help.  I had no idea the tidal wave that was about to hit.

I woke to a beautiful Saturday… blue skies and sunshine and not too cold.  I started out heading to the Central Train Station to help wherever I was needed.  I stopped for lunch on my way and saw a post that they needed some help and supplies at the West Train Station.  I finished my lunch and changed direction.  2 buses later I arrived at a scene that I am at a loss for words to describe. Poland was prepared to accept about 1 million people across their border.  By this morning, day 16 of the war, 1.6 million people have crossed into Poland.  What I am witnessing here by everyday people in this city is beyond description.  There were people everywhere. A tent was set up almost like a small boutique.  Those just arriving could go and help themselves to whatever they needed.  Next to that was a tent that was distributing sandwiches, snacks, and beverages.  Inside the station were makeshift beds and people everywhere.  I did what I could there for a couple hours, including keeping beverage supplies stocked.  When I decided it was time for me to leave here I caught the bus back to the Central Train Station to see if there were any needs.  It was the same, people, everywhere.  Women going around offering strollers and baby carriers to mothers with young children.  There was a tent city set up outside the train station with a sign that said free food.  Tents for clothing, personal hygiene items, T-Mobile, and other phone carriers handing out sim cards with free minutes and data.   People leave boxes of snacks, beverages, and sandwiches in the middle of the hall for arrivals to help themselves.  Again, normal citizens somehow come together to make this work.  I don’t know how Poland can keep accepting people, but they are resilient and are doing whatever they can to make it work.  I struggle to find the words and pictures that do not tell the story you see in the eyes of new arrivals.  I’m tired, I’m thankful, I’m blessed.

I fell into bed exhausted, physically but most of all, emotionally.  I woke up Sunday morning to a plethora of messages.  Many who saw my post from the train station wanted to know how they could help, could they send me money?  Although a bit overwhelmed, I couldn’t say no.  After all, one of my favorite quotes is from Mother Theresa and says, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I was already witnessing the ripple effect across Poland.  I ordered my Starbucks (it’s my Sunday treat to myself), opened the Tribune app on my phone, and was shocked to see my story on the front page, “the drive to save lives”.  Between my post from the previous day, a zoom chat with friends in Florida, and now the newspaper article, my notification chime kept dinging.  It looked as if our ripple was turning into a tidal wave.  At this point, I knew I couldn’t handle this all myself.  I asked my friend Teri in Warren, Barb in Alabama, Dawn in Tennessee, and Marla in Florida if they would each handle contributions in their areas.  By that evening, I was an emotional wreck.  People I have never met, casual acquaintances, friends I went to school with, friends of friends, my family, more people than I ever imagined were sending contributions.  If this doesn’t give some hope for humanity, nothing will.  As I am writing this today, I have received over $13,000 of love and kindness for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.  One person said they had been to Ukraine last summer with their child and he wanted to help.  I heard, “my family chooses a charity to support each year and when we saw this it is what we want to do.”  I discovered that people wanted something they could be a part of and see the results.  When I said this war was becoming personal, I had no idea what I was talking about.  I think I cried myself to sleep that night with tears of joy.

Monday and Tuesday, I worked.  Wednesday, I told Paweł I would be by the Pinball Station to see him.  After hitting up 4 ATM machines to withdraw funds for 2 buses (6000 zł), I set off to walk to the museum…purse close by my side.  When I arrived there was a school group there so being a nice day, we headed out to the back patio to chat.  4 hours later, I was speechless.  What this man has organized by himself is truly amazing.  Here is his story…

If you’re like me, I never really gave much thought to bringing people from the border.  You send a bus, you pick people up, you bring them back…simple, right?  Not…In the early part of the war, there were easily 100 thousand people crossing the border on any given day.  There are border gates that everyone must pass through and be counted.  Some of these gates lead to cities that have train stations, some just lead to small towns or villages.  These people need to be moved to bigger cities because there are no facilities in many of these places to handle large numbers.  The other thing is all the regular daily train and bus service around and out of Poland can’t just stop.  You can’t send every bus and train to the border and leave the rest of the country in limbo.  Where are all these trains and buses going to come from to move this number of people?  Paweł started out going to the border in his private vehicle.  He decided he needed to find a way to get buses to the border.  After he solved the problem of getting buses, the logistics doesn’t stop there.  He got to know the police and volunteers in these border cities and for about the first 10 days traveled with the buses.  Now, he explained to me, he sends a bus, when the driver is about 30 minutes out from the border, he phones Paweł.  Paweł then phones a volunteer in one of the cities.  He finds out where the greatest need is and then calls the driver and tells him which city to go to.  Because males between 18 and 60 are obligated to remain in Ukraine, most of the passengers are women, children, the elderly, and a few pets.  He has a simple notebook he records each day for each bus.  For instance, he records each unit on the bus. (1 adult 2 children, etc.)

He also records their final or wished for final destination as this helps him determine if he drops them at the train station or orders Ubers to transport them to a shelter.  He also told me that in the beginning there wasn’t a day when he wasn’t brought to tears by something.  For example, at the border reception stations, the refugees are met and one of the things they are given is a sim card so they can contact someone that may still be in Ukraine.  He told me of a mother and daughter who arrived.  The first thing she did was call her husband.  A stranger answered…..that is how she, alone, with a small child in a strange country, found out her husband had been killed.

Working at the train station, I noticed that people were arriving with very few personal items.  Paweł explained.  People started out taking as much as they could, but as the war escalated and evacuation intensified trains, buses and cars were more concerned with moving people, not things.  Also, what might have normally been a 4-hour trip was now sometimes taking 4 days.  People started abandoning their belongings at the side of the road not being able to carry so much because they were walking or because it was more important to take people versus “things”.

I am going to pause here for a moment in Paweł’s story and ask you to ponder this question.  You must flee your home, your country, your life as you knew it because the bombs are closer each day, what are you taking in the one bag you will probably end up with?  This was a recurring question in my classes whenever we talked about the current situation in Poland.  No one could imagine having to put their life in a simple bag. What are you taking?

Paweł told me of one night that the bus was nearing the border and everywhere he called he heard the same thing, there are no refugees.  No one seemed to know why.  The bus driver said he could spend the night in the bus.  The next morning, refugees started arriving again.  Firstly, it had been cold overnight (upper teens, low 20’s) but more tragically, the Russians had been shooting at the trains.  They stopped the trains, and everyone took shelter through the night.  When they felt it was as safe as it would get, they continued their journey finally arriving at the border the next morning. There was also a rush at the border after humanitarian corridors were opened to evacuate cities. He told me of women in the border towns seeing mothers struggling with small children, would go across into Ukraine and carry their children into Poland for them.

I was stunned by his stories, his firsthand accounts.  As we are entering day 25 of the war, almost 2 million people have crossed into Poland.  Poland has said they will find a way to take everyone that needs refuge.  We are seeing a decrease in people arriving now, but there are many other needs, and this could change at any time.  For instance, there may be a need for transportation to the port in Gdynia, Poland as Sweden is transporting people from Poland to Sweden by boat.  There is also a need for large quantities of cleaning supplies at these shelters that are housing 1000s of refugees.  Toilet paper, soap, shampoo, personal hygiene items, blankets…think about it.  Within 3 weeks 2 million additional people need these supplies.  Where are they coming from?   There is a need for powdered milk which he can buy at cost if he purchases 1000 kilos (about 1 ton).  The Ukrainian army is requesting drones and they need medical supplies.  So while we will still be using funds for sponsoring buses from the border, because of your generosity we will be able to help fund several projects.

I am going to wrap this up here.  The last 3 weeks, but mostly this last week have been an emotional roller coaster.  My eyes were opened to things I never thought about.  Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself.  I have met people who have no idea what their future looks like.  I have also witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.

As Nelson Mandela said, “We can change the world and make it a better place.  It is in your hands to make a difference.”

Thank you for letting me tell my story.  My life, my heart, and my soul are forever changed.  Thank you for making a difference.

Teri, Barb, Dawn, Diana, Randy, Danny, Sandy, Michael, Marla, Celeste, Brenda, Wanda, Gail, Jan, Ann, Kay, Dan, Richard, Connie, the Boca Starbucks Group, Amy, Larry, Gloria, Lynn, Guy, Pat, Richard, Cathy, Sandy, Maureen, Henry, Sue, Jane, Dan, Margie, Lori, Nina, Carly, Susan, Janet, Mark, Frank, Andrea, Marilyn, Darlene, Margo, Cathy, Jeff, Judy, Marilyn, Jodi, Julia, Dennis, Ann Marie, Donita, Sean, Traci, Marcella, Linda, Nick, Rhonda, Bob, Kathy, Henry, Deb, Scott, Sharon, Bob, Sally, Lucy, Mary, Kary, John, Becky, Ann, Karen, Shane, Tom, Emily, Debbie, Bill, Bobbie, Clara, Rocky, Jan, Marilyn, Maribeth, Elaine, Wayne, Teri, Janice, Jayne, Joyce, Jan….I’m sure the list will grow.  Forgive me if I missed a name.  It has all been overwhelming.  Thank you for making a difference.

Ten Travel Tips and a Spare

Ten Travel Tips and a Spare

Spending the last nearly eight years as a nomad wandering this planet with 195 countries, 7 seas, and nearly 8 billion people, I have picked up a few helpful hints along the way.  In 2021, I visited my fortieth country.  To some people that probably seems like a lot, but it is a mere twenty percent of this incredible world.  Sometimes I am amazed that I have seen so much while other times I think how much is still there to explore.  I have been in places where my skin shade, my religion, and my language have put me in the minority.

I have sat in Hindu temples and experienced spirituality I can’t put into words.  I have sat in rooms where no one spoke my native language and I knew but a few basic words in theirs.  I have relied on the kindness of strangers when I found myself in unknown parts and a mobile phone with a dead battery.  I have shared a meal with locals and had no idea what I was eating and honestly decided it was best I didn’t know.  I had a six-hour back surgery 7000 miles from home in a small town in China.   I have slept in a home in rural North Vietnam where the animals lived under the house and meals were cooked over an open fire.  I have slept in a home with no running water.  I have also dined with a ship’s captain floating somewhere in the middle of one of the seven seas.

I was at the procession for the Queen Mum’s funeral in London, have stood in Red Square in Moscow, and sipped champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Out of all these experiences,  the most important thing I have learned, and it is not part of my “tip list”, is that no matter the country, the culture, the language, the skin shade, the religion, or the political situation, is that people are inherently good.  I would describe myself as an optimist, but I don’t see the glass as half full and certainly not half empty.  I see it as having room for more. I like to think I always have room for more…more room to grow…more room to learn.  Maybe you already know most of my “tips”, but these are some things I have picked up along my journey.  Hopefully, you too have room for more and maybe you will pick up just one thing that will make your travels go more smoothly.  As a side note, for most of these tips, I am thinking about travel of a minimum of one week or longer.  Without further ado my top ten and a spare:

  1. You Don’t Need All Those Shoes: Do you really need three different pairs of sandals?  Let me answer that for you…NO!  What you do need are comfortable walking shoes.  If you are going to a warm climate and those shoes happen to be sandals, so be it.  Although, I prefer to have my main pair of comfortable shoes as closed-toe. These are also usually the ones I travel in.   Depending on the time of year, I like a Born Mayflower II (flat) or the Toby Duo (slight heel).  These are good for fall, winter, and rainy weather.  I also like my closed-toe Keens.  The Skecher GOwalk slip-on is another good choice.  It comes in several colors, but I tend to stick with black or grey.  For warm weather, I can’t be without a pair of flip-flops.  I love my croc flip-flops and Keen has nice options also.  An essential shoe, in my humble opinion, is a shower shoe that can double as a pair of slippers for your room.  If you have the room or are planning a fancy night out and need a dressy pair of shoes, that is your choice.  For most of my travels, I can make do with the pair I am traveling in, a pair of flip-flops (depending on the time of year or destination), and a pair of shower shoes.  I rarely have more than 3 pairs total including what I am wearing.
Born Mayflower
  1. Stick to Black, Grey, Brown, and Navy: I know, I know….BORING.  I’m not suggesting you don’t pack anything of color.  Choose the core pieces of your wardrobe in these basic colors.  A pair of jeans and 3 other pairs of pants can get me by for 2 weeks of travel.  This includes the pair I travel in.  I usually travel in a pair of dark-colored yoga-type pants which can be dressed up with a nice blouse or tunic.  You need color in your life/wardrobe you argue.  No problem, a couple of colorful tops will easily match your bottoms.  Accessorize with color…take a couple colorful scarves which can double as a wrap if it gets chilly or a headcover should you get caught in the rain.  Always expect the unexpected.  This means even if you are going to a tropical climate, throw in a long-sleeve item or wear it on the plane as it often tends to be chilly onboard.  I’m not going to tell you how much to pack in the way of clothes, just don’t pack more than you can easily manage on your own.  Especially because traveling in many countries you won’t always find the convenience of an elevator or escalator and may find yourself hauling your 50lb (23 kg) suitcase up a flight of stairs.  My rule of thumb…if I have extra room in my suitcase and it doesn’t make it too heavy, I usually throw in an extra shirt or two.  It’s easier to wear pants for multiple days than shirts.  I also don’t usually pack an umbrella because they are cheap to buy on the street should the need arise.

    Just a little pop of color
  2. Buy Shampoo and Stuff at Destination: Okay, I know they make most everything in travel size nowadays. But, even in travel size, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion all add unnecessary weight to your luggage.  Unless you can give me a good reason why you can’t do without your favorite shampoo for a week or two, use what is available at the hotel.  If you absolutely hate what is provided or they don’t have everything you need, buy it at your destination and leave it behind or use those zip-lock bags I’m going to talk about and take it home at the end of the trip.  That’s all I’m going to say about that.  Trust me, the space and weight you save can be of a better use for something else.  AND, if you can afford the trip, you can probably afford to buy those things when you arrive.
  3. Baby Wipes: I just got done telling you to buy stuff at your destination and now I’m telling you to pack baby wipes.  I don’t think you will need to shampoo your hair between leaving and home and your destination, although never say never.  You may want to freshen up between here and there.  I throw a packet of baby wipes in my carry-on to wash my face, wipe my hands, clean the tray table, etc.  Believe me when I tell you they will come in handy.  Ever gone to the restroom and discovered there is no toilet paper…aha…I have baby wipes.  Need to blow your nose and no tissues…baby wipes.  Baby wipes are more versatile than a pack of tissues, although it never hurts to have tissues on you either.
  4. Scan Docs and Email Yourself: I am old school and like a hard copy of everything, but it isn’t always convenient to have a folder full of paper you must root through.  I try to scan or take a photo of important documents.  This would include, any identification (driver’s license, passport), boarding passes, tickets for museums and shows, confirmation numbers for hotels, etc., important phone numbers (bank, credit card company, hotels, emergency numbers), and in these days of coronavirus, proof of negative covid test, recovery, or vaccination.  Once I have scans or photos of everything, I create a folder on my phone and store them.  More importantly, email a copy of all the documents to yourself.  This way, should you lose or have your phone stolen, you can always access your email at any computer and retrieve the documents.
  5. Pen: Always, always, always have a pen on you.  If traveling internationally, most often you will need to fill out some type of immigration form (usually on the plane).  Also in these days of coronavirus, a health questionnaire is sometimes required.  Even if I have filled out forms online, I have, on occasion, had to fill them out hardcopy.  Even if not traveling internationally, it seems as if there is always something I need to jot down.
  6. One Splurge: I never want to be the typical tourist and do all the touristic things.  I have saved up for this trip and want to be as economical as possible.  I know I said earlier if you can afford the trip buy the stuff there.  That doesn’t mean I want to spend crazy amounts of money to have and do the best of everything or eat in 5-star restaurants every night.  In other words, I don’t want to spend stupid money either.  Do find at least one “special” thing you want to do or treat yourself to…Maybe it’s a special wine, a massage, a trendy restaurant, a special purchase, a touristic dinner cruise on the Seine at sunset, whatever your little heart desires.  Splurge on at least one thing that is going to make your trip magical.
Seine Dinner Cruise
  1. Learn Some Basics and an Unusual Phrase: This may be one of the most important things on my list, in my opinion.  Learn the basics!!  If you are traveling to a country where you don’t know the language, learning at least hello, goodbye, please, and thank you will make life so much easier.  People will appreciate the fact you tried to speak their language.  If you can find and learn an unusual phrase even better.  I have also found it helpful to learn how to ask for your check in the local language at restaurants and cafes.  Numbers….learning the basics of numbers has been beneficial when using taxis.  Of course, you should only use official taxis or take the chance of being ripped off.  Another useful phrase is to learn how they toast in the local language.  I always get a smile when I say, “sante”, “ganbei” or “na zdrowie”.  If you aren’t traveling to a place where the language is different, it is still nice to learn if they have any local custom, history, or phrase and then use it.  Locals are always happy to discover you know something about their town’s history or culture.

  1. Eat Where the Locals Eat: I get it that maybe everyone doesn’t want to try exotic foods, but are you really going to Paris and eating at McDonald’s?  Okay, that may be a bit extreme and when I lived in China, having a McDonald’s burger and fries seemed like a luxury, a little taste of home.  But I seriously know people that have gone to a faraway destination and eaten only at American brand fast food places.  I understand you don’t like raw fish so I’m not saying that you must eat sushi if you go to Japan.  Maybe you eat chicken.  Find out how chicken is typically prepared at your destination and try it that way.  Vegan and vegetarian options are becoming more popular and easier to find all over the world.  When I say eat where the locals eat, ask the person who works at the desk at the hotel where they take their family to eat and go there.  Of course if, they direct you to a sushi place and you don’t like sushi, let them know.  Explain what you do like, and I am sure they can direct you to somewhere the locals eat.  Not only will it probably be a bit less expensive, but you may also discover something new.  My favorite places to eat worldwide usually end up being the simple café, warung, bistro, or corner diner the locals go to.

  1. Zip Lock Bags: Ziplock bags take up very little space in your luggage and for me, have come in handy many times.  Try to take several different sizes.  Of course, nowadays, any liquids in your carry-on must be in zippy bags.  They also come in handy when packing to return home.  Maybe you spilled something on a shirt and washed it out by hand.  It didn’t get dry before time to go…put it in a zip lock bag.  Took a last-minute swim…suit in a zippy.  They are great for separating dirty clothes from the clean on the way home.  That shampoo you bought and don’t want to leave….zippy bag so it doesn’t leak in your suitcase.  Long layover, great to put snacks in.  Put your cords and chargers in zippy bags to make them easy to find and grab.  Again, just trust me on this.  They take up minimal space and you’ll be surprised how they come in handy.
  2. WhatsApp and Other Useful Apps: Here’s your bonus, useful apps when traveling.  If you are traveling, especially out of the USA, most people use WhatsApp as a communication platform.  You can send texts and make calls, including video calls.  The best part, when using Wi-Fi, calls aren’t charged to your data.  Traveling to a country they don’t speak your native language?  Google Translate is in my opinion the best option.  It is also a good idea to download the offline package, so you don’t need the internet for translation purposes.  Although, I would recommend Pleco if traveling to China since Google is blocked.  I mostly use Google Maps for directions and download the offline map for whatever city I am in.  Baidu Maps for use in China.  For transportation service, Uber is pretty much universal and reliable.  I also recommend downloading any other public transportation apps for cities you may be in.  For example, the Paris Metro for Paris, Jakdojade for Warsaw buses, trams, and metro…most major cities with public transportation will have an app.  Probably the most useful app, if you are travelling out of your home country, is XE Currency Converter.

There you have it.  A few tips I tell my friends when traveling.  I’m sure you may not agree with everything, I mean I have been known to spend 3 weeks in Europe with a carry-on roller bag and a backpack.  On my most recent weekend in Paris, I took an 11 L crossbody bag.  I know that’s not for everyone, but I hope you picked up an idea or two.  If you decided to leave that extra pair of shoes behind, it is always a good idea to toss an extension cord in your bag, and don’t forget the converter/adapter if traveling to a foreign country.  Peace!  Love!  Travel!

My Favorite Travel Movies

My Favorite Travel Movies

I don’t own a television, at home, or abroad.  I haven’t watched television in the last 10 years (I never watched it much as a child either) unless at someone’s home or a bar or restaurant that has one playing.  I rarely go to a movie theatre (I mostly read) but every now and then I will cue up a movie on my laptop or when I am in the states usually watch a movie when I am visiting my friend Teri.  I tend to be drawn to movies that feed my wanderlust or foodie movies.  I haven’t been able to come up with a topic for my next blog post, so I decided to do my favorite travel movies.  I usually choose movies that are in places I have visited or places I want to visit.  Some I have watched a dozen times, some only once, but all have somehow resonated with me.  In no specific order with a short synopsis and my thoughts, the following are my five favorite travel movies.  Sure, there are others I really like but after much consideration, this is my list.

Some of you may be surprised that “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain didn’t make the list, especially since I have seen it easily a dozen times.   I just consider it a fun “French” movie, not so much a travel film.  You might also argue that Midnight in Paris is just a movie set in Paris, but trust me, it may just get to your wanderlust and make you want to visit the City of Light.  I am also linking the movies’ trailers to the film title just in case you want to check any of them out.

Some may argue that when I started on my journey almost 8 years ago (WOW, how is that possible?)     that I was on my own Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimage.  While not entirely true, I did feel a connection to Liz Gilbert.  Based on a true story, Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) thought she had it all: a home, a husband, and a successful career.  Newly divorced and facing a turning point, she finds she is confused about what is important to her.  I was ending a 27-year relationship and was hating a job I used to love.  Stepping out of her comfort zone, she takes off on a quest of self-discovery that over the course of a year takes her to Italy, India, and Bali, Indonesia.  Although self-discovery was and continues to be a big part of my journey, it wasn’t my goal.  I basically just wanted to run away from my life.  I enrolled in some online language courses through the University of Miami Florida and received my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.  I found a job, packed a suitcase, and moved to Paris, France.  While things didn’t go quite as planned, I did discover this was the life I wanted.  I briefly returned to the states and made another plan.  This time I headed to China for 6 months, which turned into 4 years.  China led me to a short stint in Bali and now here I am in Poland still discovering many things about myself and life in general.  As a side note that has nothing to do with this post, as much as I love to read, I tried 3 times to read the book, “Eat, Pray, Love” and just couldn’t get into it.  Thank goodness for the movie.

My first love…Paris!  Yes, Paris stole my heart even before my first visit.  I also love to write, so when Midnight in Paris came out it was a must-see.  In my humble opinion, the opening montage alone will make you want to visit.  Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and aspiring novelist.  Although vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, he finds himself walking the city at night, alone.  One night at the stroke of midnight, Gil encounters a group of revelers who are strange yet familiar.  Soon he finds himself in Paris, in the ’20s, with the era’s icons of art and literature.  The more time he spends with these people in the past, the more disenchanted he becomes with the present.   While partying with these characters, there is a scene that shows a carousel with bicycles that you pedal to make it move.  It can reach speeds of 60 kph.  This scene takes place at Musée des Arts Forains.  This is a museum of fairground art, carnival games, and rides.  It is one of my favorite places to share with visitors in Paris.  My favorite line from the movie is, “actually, Paris is most beautiful in the rain”.  I believe Paris is most beautiful in the rain.  This is one of those movies I never tire of watching.

If there is one movie that best explains the feelings, the experiences, the ups and downs of the last 7+ years of my life, it is A Map for SaturdayAlthough I am not a young backpacker, on the road for a year, or staying in hostels (I have but not usually my first choice), it does do a great job of showing all the feels.  I have mostly had a home base in some country or another over my journey, but I have also traveled extensively during this time.  Those first hours of being alone in a new destination, meeting people over the course of your stay, and knowing when you leave it really is “goodbye”.  Most of the time it isn’t see you later because deep down you know you probably will never see these people again.  The movie’s filmmaker, Brook Silva Braga, quits his lucrative job as a producer with HBO Sports and documents his 11 months of backpacking around the world. During those 11 months, he spent time on four continents, Australia, Asia, Europe, and South America.  The title of the film comes from the fact that when you are on long-term travel with no obligations, every day feels like Saturday.  When I eventually return to the states (yes, someday but no idea when), I would love to talk to young people.  Their parents will probably hate me, but I want to tell them to take that “gap year”.  A foreign concept to most Americans but it is embraced by other cultures.  What you can learn when you move out of your comfort zone and embrace the chaos of Asia, or the mindset of Europe is not something you will learn in the classroom.  I agree that lifestyle, even for a year, or my lifestyle which has been even more long-term isn’t for everyone.  But I can’t repeat it enough if you have even the smallest desire…GO!  Even if you aren’t a young person who hasn’t settled into a 9 to 5 life, if you are someone unhappy with a job, or just want to experience living a different culture from your own, even if it is for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months…GO!  If you want to understand my lifestyle because it is something so hard to put into words, watch this movie.  If I recommend one movie on this list for people who have a desire for long-term travel watch “A Map for Saturday”.

Can a person be happy living abroad, alone?  I often get asked if I get homesick, feel lonely, or unhappy.  I can honestly say I have never been homesick.  I truly feel at home anywhere in the world.  Lonely?  No…I consider myself a loner and solitude (which I don’t think is the same as loneliness) is something I need.  I will admit there have been times I have seen or experienced something amazing, and I wish there was someone there to share it – at that moment instead of sharing it with them via social media or text message, or a phone call.  But that feeling doesn’t last because when I do share on social media friends are happy to share that experience with me in that way.  FOMO – fear of missing out – not really, after all, in the world of video chats I don’t have to miss out on much if I just make the effort.  Now, do I ever feel unhappy?  If I said no, that would be a giant lie.  No one, even me who tries to be positive all the time, can go through life without feeling unhappy every now and again.  Usually, that unhappiness is short-lived.  Maybe my roommate doesn’t shut the freezer tight, and I walk into a puddle on the floor at 2 am….definitely unhappy.  Or I walk to the tram stop (10 minutes), catch a tram across the river (15 minutes) walk to a museum or shop or restaurant (10 minutes), and discover I should have maybe checked to see if they are open because I just came all this way to find out they are closed….big unhappy!  Truthfully, I am happy most of the time.

I often scan the internet for books/movies on travel.  Somehow I came across Hector and the Search for Happiness.  Hector is a psychiatrist.  He lives a very organized life.  One day, he confesses to his girlfriend, Claire, that he feels like a fraud because he gives recommendations to his patients who never seem to improve or get any happier.  On a whim, he finds some courage to break out of his lackluster routine and embark on an international journey to find the formula for joy and happiness.  As he globe-trots, Hector captures in his journal his notes on happiness and things that spoil happiness based on his encounters.  One of these notes says, “Happiness is doing a job you love”.  Bingo…I knew I needed to move on when I started hating a job I used to love.  “Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are”.  Nowhere or at no time is this more apparent than when you are traveling alone in a foreign place.  No one knows your history, what you looked like (yep, how you would take that body back when you thought you were fat at 21), nothing…they know nothing about you yet like you for who you are right at that moment.  “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness”.  Don’t compare yesterday to today.  His list goes on and it’s a good list.  I could write about everything on it, but one more… “Happiness is knowing how to celebrate”.  Celebrate even the small things.  When I first got to China, I had a two-week training period with a bunch of kids on their gap year.  They celebrated everything from learning how to write something in Chinese characters to finally mastering chopsticks.  This is the number 2 movie after “A Map for Saturday” I would recommend.

Who doesn’t love Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman?  Together in a movie … a no-brainer.  In my life, I have ticked many things off my so-called Bucket ListBillionaire Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson) and car mechanic Carter Chambers (played by Morgan Freeman) are complete strangers until fate lands them in the same hospital room.  The need to discover who they are and what they have done with their lives leaves them with a desire to complete a list of things they want to see and do before they die. Spoiler alert – One of the things on the bucket list is “laugh until you cry”.  This is satisfied when Carter reveals to Edward the origin of the “most expensive coffee in the world” (Kopi Luwak) that he obsesses over.  Of course, I got a good laugh from this because I have sometimes been on the receiving end of laughter when I would drink Kopi Luwak.  Some of the other items on their bucket list were see something truly majestic, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world (his granddaughter), drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China, skydive, see the Taj Mahal, drive a Shelby Mustang, sit on the Great Pyramids, and get a tattoo.  Some of these I have ticked (well I didn’t drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall, but…) and I still have the Taj Mahal on my bucket list.  The greatest thing in the movie for me is Carter explains the Egyptian myth:  When Egyptians die, the gods would be waiting at the gate of heaven to ask them two questions before allowing them to enter:  1. Have you found joy in your life?  2. Has your life brought joy to others?

I hope whoever is reading this has found joy in their life.  I know I have.  As I am winding this down, I happened to glance at the calendar on my desk, January 9, 2022.  It reminds me that 2 years ago today, January 9, 2020, my heart was overflowing with joy.  It was the grand re-opening of the Robins Theatre brought to fruition by my brother and sister-in-law.  My “little brother”, I witnessed that night something truly majestic and how his life brought joy to so many.  I hope my life brings joy to others also.

As a postscript, the next five on my list.  I had to end the main text at 5 or this post would have been a small book.  I will however link trailers to the titles.

Paths of Souls  a documentary of eleven Tibetans who prostrate themselves every few steps during a 1,200-mile pilgrimage that lasts for seven months.

Paris Je T’Aime  a collection of 18 vignettes set in Paris.

Under the Tuscan Sun  Frances Mayes, a 35-year-old San Francisco writer gets a divorce that leaves her with terminal writer’s block and depression.  Later, she decides to buy a house in Tuscany to change her life.

Mamma Mia  As Sophie and her family are busy preparing for her wedding, she secretly invites three men, who were her mother’s lovers in the past, with the hope that one of them is her father.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  A decrepit hotel hosts seven British tourists who come to Jaipur on a holiday. Each one has a past and a new ambition.  Their lives intertwine with their host, who is also trying to get a grip on life.

Happy viewing!

2021- My Year in Review

2021- My Year in Review

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.

Why Poland? There’s More to This Country Than Pierogi!

Why Poland?  There’s More to This Country Than Pierogi!

On November 11, 2021, Poland celebrated 103 years of Independence or Narodowe Święto Niepodległości in Polish. In the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire and Poland ceased to exist for 123 years. Because of the destruction of the neighboring powers at the end of WWI, National Day in Poland is celebrated each year to commemorate 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 recent years, there has been an Independence March through the streets of Warsaw. It begins near the Palace of Culture and ends about 3 km away at the National Stadium. Me being me was naturally curious about this event. Mentioning it to students I was told it was best to stay home. Why I asked. They said sometimes trouble arises from extremist groups and it may not be safe for foreigners. As the day was approaching, my friend Tamara asked if I was going to the March. Now me being fair-haired with blue-green eyes, I kinda sorta blend in with the Polish population, that is until I speak. Tamara being a black woman, not so much. This would be the 4th year Tamara has attended the March. Her experience in past has been nothing but positive, so I decided to take others’ opinions with a grain of salt and meet her and 150,000 of our closest friends to celebrate Poland. What I witnessed was men, women, children, and seniors all decked out in white and red, waving flags and celebrating a country and a heritage they are proud of. I’m sure there were some hooligans around and some extremists with their anti-this and anti-that slogans, but we witnessed nothing but Polish people celebrating their independence.

The next day, I read and heard from others that indeed it was a peaceful celebration with less than 10 people being detained for causing trouble. The whole length of the March people were talking to us (thankfully Tamara knows a bit of Polish) and she was constantly asked to take photos with people. She became an internet sensation (many of my students commented that my friend was all over the internet) and there was even an article written, “Who is the Black Woman at the Independence Day March?”.

Why am I telling you about this? I often get asked, “Why Poland?”. Why have I decided to live in Poland? My original plan was to stay in Asia or more specifically SE Asia, but circumstances brought me here, to Warsaw. I started out talking about Independence Day and the March because it reinforced my views of this country I have come to call home. I also happened to start this blog a couple days after the march. I thought I would probably stay in Poland for a year or a year and a half, thanks to the pandemic I have been in Poland for nearly 2 years with plans to stay longer as I discover more and more reasons to answer, “why Poland?”.

I have probably mentioned that Warsaw is a great city. Poland’s capital is home to about 1.8 million people and 85% of the city was destroyed by the end of WWII. Most of Old Town Warsaw, including the Royal Castle, was destroyed. It was meticulously rebuilt using as many original bricks as possible and studying original architectural plans, photos and postcards. The rubble was even sifted through to gather reusable decorative items which were returned to their original places. Warsaw is home to 41 museums and 71 universities offering 983 study programs. It’s no wonder it attracts a large number of international students. Warsaw ranks in Europe’s top ten greenest and most eco-friendly cities. One of my favorite things about Warsaw is the fabulous public transportation system.

What about the rest of Poland? Poland boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites with the Historic Center of Krakow being the first recognized in 1978 and in 2021 the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians were added to the list.

Built during the 13th century and measured by land area, Poland is home to the largest castle in the world, the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork. 90% of Poland’s population has completed at least secondary education. In 1901, two Poles, Jan Szczepanik and Kazimierz Żegleń gave the world the bulletproof vest. In 1923, Warsaw-born Leo Gersenzang who in his 20’s emigrated to Chicago, invented cotton buds first calling them Baby Gays and later changing the name to Q-Tips. In 1887, a Pole of Jewish origin, Ludwik Zamenhof, is credited with the invention of the world’s most artificially created language, Esperanto.

Alicja Englard was born in 1923 in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland. During the war and occupation she studied philosophy in Warsaw. Surviving WWII using fake Aryan documents, she finished her doctorate in Basel Switzerland. Her dissertation on the lives of many dictators and despots like Hitler, Mao and Stalin came to the conclusion that every dictator was in fact a child victim of violence in the past. Her views on the ill effects of child beating were met with great speculation in Europe, which was more than accustomed to corporal forms of punishment. Because of her perseverance, Alicja Englard laid the foundations for what would later become law prohibiting violence against children or Children’s Rights.

Poland has a horrific history, some of which I have written about. Poland also has beautiful traditions, especially this time of year, the magical season of Christmas. As you may have figured out, I am finishing this blog over a month after I started and it is now Christmastime. In the spirit of the season, my English lessons leading up to Christmas, I asked students to share memories of their past celebrations.

I heard stories of live carp in the bathtub, fish scales placed in wallets, “less pierogi, less stress”, families playing board games, watching Kevin in “Home Alone” and even a grandma browsing the “Kama Sutra” someone had purchased for their recently married brother. Hearing these stories made me want to learn and understand the specialness of Christmas Eve and wiglia in Poland.

Unlike in the United States, most Polish Christmas celebrations, including the exchange of gifts, take place on Christmas Eve. The celebration begins with Wiglia or Christmas Eve dinner. Wiglia begins when the first star appears in the sky which is to remind everyone of the Star of Bethlehem. I was also told stories that the children were sent to the windows or outdoors to watch for the twinkle of the first star. It was then that Santa would sneak gifts under the tree.

Once the first star has been seen, the family gathers around the table. There is an extra place-setting at the table for the unexpected guest, to celebrate hospitality. Tradition has a small handful of hay placed under the tablecloth to symbolize Jesus’ birth in a manger. The feast then begins with grace and the breaking of the opłatek which is a Christmas wafer.

Nothing will be eaten until all guests have broken the opłatek and exchanged wishes for prosperity and good health in the coming year. Traditionally the wiglia consists of 12 dishes, 12 being a symbol of wealth and also representing the twelve Apostles. During the meal, all guests should have a taste of all 12 dishes to ensure good luck in the 12 months of the coming year. This is where I would have a problem. Nearly all the dishes contain either mushrooms or fish (remember the carp in the tub?) and I am not a fan of either. So, I guess I would only have about 2 months of luck. The Christmas Eve dinner is also void of meat.

The meal usually starts with barszcz which is a beetroot soup with tiny dumplings stuffed with dried porcini called uszka meaning “little ears”. Other traditional Christmas Eve soups you might find are soft-water fish soup (for example, carp), white borscht, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup. Other dishes include carp prepared in various styles, herring and of course pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms to name a few.

I also learned about a dish called kutia which is a mixture of cooked wheatgrains (wheatberry), cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds. This dish got mixed reviews from my students and seems to differ by region.

No wiglia would be complete without piernik or old fashioned gingerbread. Dating back as far as the 17th century, records of gingerbread can be found in the ancient city of Toruń, birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus. You might also be served poppyseed cake called makówki and finish the meal by sipping compote. Compote is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits – typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. It is supposed to help speed up digestion. The rest of the evening may be spent sharing songs and stories around the table until it is time for Pasterka or midnight mass.

That is a brief explanation of a typical Christmas Eve here in Poland. Although I didn’t experience wiglia, (I’m not complaining as I mentioned I don’t do mushrooms or fish) I did experience a lovely Christmas Eve. I met up with my friend Tamara (from the Independence March). We started in Old Town Market Square grabbed a hot cup of grzane wino or mulled wine and watched the city light up. We strolled through Old Town looking at the lights, listening to a saxophone player under the grand tree in front of the Royal Castle. We stopped for a cup of hot cherry vodka (that stuff is delicious) to continue our walk past the Presidential Palace and then up Nowy Świat (New World Street). Basically we walked what is known as the Royal Route. Warsaw was magical on Christmas Eve with lightly falling snow, sparkling lights everywhere and the spirit of the season was felt in everyone we passed.

We finished the evening at a 24 hour diner, one of the only places open on the eve of Christ’s birth.

 

 

Unlike Polish tradition of a meatless meal, we chowed down on giant burgers, French fries and red wine. Pretty perfect in my American in Poland eyes.

So back to my original musing…..Why Poland? When I moved here in February 2020, I would have said, “I don’t know, its Europe…I can run off to Paris for a weekend…I like Europe… I had a job offer.” 22 months later, I say, Poland is a beautiful and amazing country and I am trying to immerse myself in its culture. I like it here, I feel at home….why Poland? Why not Poland?

“To move, to breath, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.”

Hans Christian Anderson

Why I Am Grateful for the Global Pandemic

Why I Am Grateful for the Global Pandemic

As the Thanksgiving season is upon us, it is time to consciously think about things we are grateful for.  Sure, we all go through the list of family, friends, a place to live, a job, food to eat, etc.  Now, before you jump down my neck and say, how can you be grateful for a global crisis that, according to Worldometer, has now affected over 250,000,000 people and has caused, along with other comorbidities, 5,000,000 plus deaths?”,  let me explain.

In a few short months, we will be two years into what started out as “two weeks to flatten the curve”.  Sometimes it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that two years have nearly passed and that I will have been living in Poland for two years and have received temporary residency.  My original plan, although I should probably say “my original thought” as I didn’t really have a solid plan, was to spend just over a year in Poland.

Then I wanted to return to Bali and my Balinese family for a special ceremony that was planned at the temple in Peliatan.  After a few months in Bali, possibly move on to a WorkAway in India, Kenya, or Tanzania and then consider a return to Poland.  A mere six weeks after I arrived in Poland, the world stopped turning.

As the pandemic progressed,  information from the State Department in the USA, encouraged American citizens abroad to return home.  Having a job and a flat, I chose to stay in Warsaw.  A choice in no way I regret and am thankful for.  Henry Rollins once said, “a great way to learn about your country is to leave it.”   Looking at my country, it seemed a bit chaotic.  Since this is somewhat of a gratitude post, I’m not going to address that here.   Other than working remotely, my life in Warsaw was copacetic.  Although, it was becoming obvious that “two weeks to flatten the curve” wasn’t happening.

Today, I started a one-on-one English lesson with a new student.  She asked me to “tell her my story”.  I’m sure she had no idea what she was getting herself into.  I finally ended my story explaining that because of the pandemic, I am still in Poland and have agreed to another school year and I have residency until 2024.  I guess she is a glutton for punishment, she then asked me to tell her my feelings about Warsaw and life in Poland.  Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the teacher here, but her question made me think.  I didn’t need to think about how I felt about life in Poland, but it made me realize how much I came to appreciate Poland because of or maybe despite the pandemic.  Without further ado, reasons I am grateful for the pandemic.

Having visited Warsaw once before in 2014, I knew it would be a great home base for travel throughout Europe.  I pictured weekends in Paris, visiting family and friends in Germany, seeing Erwin in Norway, heading off to Finland or Sweden to see the Northern Lights, and picking up some new stamps in my passport along the way.  Of course, those plans were shattered when the pandemic hit, and Poland closed its borders.  I had a choice to sit at home or go out and explore my city. Although many things were closed, I started walking around my neighborhood.

This led to the discovery of remnants of the Mur Ghetto or Ghetto Wall.  The memorials show the outline of the former ghetto which in 1940 had a total length of about 18km.  There is a line on the sidewalk or street reading “mur getta”.  I learned that if you can read the words straight on, you are outside the ghetto and if they appear upside down, you are inside the ghetto.  Finding these memorials, I became curious as to what I didn’t know about Poland and WWII.  As I researched, I discovered more and more places I wanted to visit not only in Warsaw but all of Poland.

Not usually being one for historical fiction,  I was suddenly drawn to novels about Poland and WWII.  With the pandemic in full swing, I had plenty of time to up my reading habit.   Books like, “The Lilac Girls”, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, “The Rabbit Girls”, and “The Book of Lost Names” piqued my interest in other places in Warsaw and other cities across Poland.

Although I love zoos and often visit them, after reading “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and learning how Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews and hiding them in empty cages and even in their villa, I knew my visit to the Warsaw Zoo would have me see it in a different light.  “The Lilac Girls” introduced me to Lublin, Poland, and the State Museum at Majdanek.

I had never heard of the Majdanek Concentration Camp and Lublin was only just over 2 hours by train from Warsaw.  It was an easy day trip and one spring day I caught the train and because of a book, I visited a place I may never have known about.

Walking my neighborhood, I found out I was a couple of blocks away from the Warsaw Uprising Museum.  The Warsaw Uprising broke out on Tuesday, August 1, 1944, at 17:00 PM.  The interactive museum is difficult to take in during just one visit.  Also near me is the Polin Museum.  The Museum is a modern institution of culture – “it is a historical museum which presents the 1000 years of Jewish life in the Polish lands.” Again, too much to wrap your head around during just one visit.  I live in the Wola District of Warsaw.

As I walked around my neighborhood, I noticed more and more markers on the street, signs on walls of buildings, and free-standing monuments.  With so much history of Jewish Poland right in my neighborhood, I also spent time wandering around the Jewish Cemetery which is just a few tram stops from my house.

The city had me intrigued and I started t look for unique things to do and see.  That’s how I discovered the Neon Museum and the Pinball Museum.  Places I probably wouldn’t have discovered were it not for the pandemic situation.  I also visited the Vodka Museum and the Stacja Muzeum (Train Museum).  While visiting the Stacja Muzeum, I learned of a narrow-gauge rail museum in a nearby city.  As restrictions around the country began to be eased, I started taking short day trips from Warsaw.  One was to the city of Sochaczew to the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum which also offered a short train ride to the Kampinos Forest and a cookout.  I didn’t know Poland had lavender fields and one day found myself on a train to the city of Żyrardów.  From there I took an Uber to a Lawenda pod Skowronkami and came home with bouquets of fresh-picked lavender.  In Warsaw I was enjoying the many parks, wandering around Old Town, and life near the Vistula River.

As summer was ending, I decided to take more than just day trips.  My first adventure took me to the city of Kętrzyn which was the city nearest to Gierłoż.  What caught my interest in Gierłoż?  By this time I had been in Poland for over 6 months, I was hungry for more and more information especially related to WWII.  As I was scrolling Facebook one day, I came across information about Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” or “Wilczy Szaniec”.  Hitler’s abandoned eastern front military headquarters during WWII and site of an assassination attempt is an eerie reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.  Located in Gierłoż forest, I discovered I could stay on the grounds in a renovated WWII bunker and explore the grounds.  I spent a day and a half wandering the grounds where Hitler spent more than 800 days during the war.

Come October, I decided to spend a few days at the Polish seaside on the Baltic Sea.  I visited the tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia with a side trip by train to Hel Peninsula which is a 35-kilometer-long sand bar peninsula separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea.  At the end of the Peninsula is the town of Hel.  From Hel, I took a ferry back to Gdynia.  The tri-cities are connected to each other by an intercity train which makes going back and forth quite simple.  While in Gdansk I went to Westerplatte which was the site of the first clash between Poland and Germany thus the beginning of WWII.  In Sopot, I discovered the longest wooden pier in Europe and the famous “crooked house”.  Because of the pandemic, I was working remotely so it was great being able to travel and work at the same time.

The end of November brought thoughts of Christmas as Warsaw started to light up for the holidays.  I took a late afternoon trip to Wilanów and the Garden of Lights.  Wilanów is home to the Wilanów Palace often called the Polish Versailles and was the second home to various kings.  I toured the Palace and by the time I finished the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and many displays.  Old Town in Warsaw was brightly decorated and a great place to stroll while sipping a warm cup of grzane wino or mulled wine.

As December rolled in I decided to spend Christmas with friends, and we headed to the Tatra Mountains and the city of Zakopane.  It was perfect as we were hiking the mountain on Christmas morning and light snow began falling.  Christmas evening I took a sleigh ride around the city and to the base of the mountains at nightfall in that lightly falling snow.  It was magical.

After Christmas, the pandemic restrictions tightened up a bit.  Between that and the cold weather, I spent the first 3 months of the year mostly working and enjoying my city.  As soon as the weather broke and restrictions were lifted, I was ready to see more of this country I was now calling home.  Through my English classes and one of our lessons, I learned that many people in Poland make a Pilgrimage to the city of Częstochowa.  The city is known for the famous Pauline Monastery of Jasna Góra, which is the home of the Black Madonna painting, a shrine to the Virgin Mary.  Every year, millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to Częstochowa to see it.

 

I decided to pay a visit to Częstochowa and see the Black Madonna over Easter weekend.  Probably not one of my brightest decisions being there were still some restrictions and Poland being a very religious country, most everything was closed the entire weekend.  No matter, I made the best of it by walking around the Old Town which had some amazing sculptures and eating kebabs, pizza, and McDonald’s as those were about the only restaurants open.  I also visited the Jasna Góra twice.  The Black Madonna is only available for viewing during certain hours, but I did manage to get in to see it.  I was also able to be there for a part of Good Friday services.  The other thing about Częstochowa was the beautiful building murals. My main goal was to see the Black Madonna at the Jasna Góra and I accomplished that task.

The first weekend in June I headed for Kraków.  Kraków is home to the company I work for here in Poland, English Wizards.   I had a checklist of things I wanted to accomplish while in town.  I wanted to meet up with the people who had hired me (I was in China when I applied and everything was done by Skype), hang out in the Old Town, wander the streets of the Jewish Quarter, visit Auschwitz, see Wawel Castle, and go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  A lot to pack into a long weekend, but I’m happy to report that all items got ticked.  I spent the first evening bar hopping in the Kazimierz District with my fellow wizards and eating late night/early morning zapiekanki (Polish Pizza) at the Okrąglak.  My hotel was in Old Town, so I had plenty of opportunities to wander the streets and eat and drink at the cafes.  Making a visit to Auschwitz is an experience I will never forget.  The Wieliczka Salt Mine was fascinating and walking around the Jewish Quarter in the Kazimierz district was very educational.  I ended my long weekend with a BBQ at the English Wizard headquarters and got to meet many of my co-workers.  Three hours by train and I was back in Warsaw.  June flew by and before I knew it, it was time for my first trip out of Poland in 16 months.  I was off to spend the summer in Bulgaria at Z-Camp, a youth sports and language camp on the Black Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can I be thankful for a global pandemic?  I’m grateful for the opportunities it forced me to take.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s heart-wrenching when I think about friends and family who have suffered and even died due to the pandemic.  The divisions it has caused between friends and family are sad.  Yes, the big picture of the last nearly 2 years is often bleak, jobs and businesses were lost.  I am one of the fortunate ones who was able to work more because of the situation.  I also decided to take advantage of the city and country where I chose to stay during this crisis.  I know I saw more of Warsaw and Poland than I would have if the world hadn’t stopped turning and there is a good chance I wouldn’t even be in Poland right now.  I am grateful that my eyes have been opened to a beautiful country that I knew so little about.  I am more understanding of their horrific history, appreciative of their culture and traditions, grateful to my students who I now call friends, and in awe of the beautiful country, I am currently calling home.  I challenge everyone during this season of Thanksgiving to look back and find something to be grateful for.

Thank you, Poland for making me feel like one of your own.

Credit for feature photo to Tomeyk_Krakow

What’s Gogh-ing On?

What’s Gogh-ing On?

Suffering from severe depression and poverty which led to his suicide at age 37, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890) posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in art history.  A Dutch post-impressionist painter, he created more than 2000 works in the last decade of his life, most of which date during his last two years.

Living in Paris in 2014/15, I took a day trip to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent the last days of his life (May-July 1890).  On July 27th, although there were no witnesses it is believed he shot himself in the chest.  He died 30 hours later, on July 29th with his brother Theo by his side as he uttered his last words, “the sadness will last forever”.  Theo died the following January and was buried in Utrecht, Netherlands.  In 1914 his widow had his body exhumed and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be re-buried beside his brother.

While in Auvers, I visited the Musee de l’Absinthe and had a taste of the “green fairy”, the church from the painting Church at Auvers-sur-Oise, the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, and the graves of Theo and Vincent at the cemetery in Auvers.  I also visited Auberge Ravoux where on the upper floor you can view the room where Vincent Van Gogh died.  It has been restored to its original.

I have always been a fan of Van Gogh and especially The Starry Night which was painted during his stay in the St. Paul Asylum in Saint Remy.  So, when I saw there was going to be a Van Gogh Exhibition during the time I was going to be in Paris in May 2019, I immediately checked with my fellow travelers and bought tickets.  It was called Van Gogh: Starry Night and Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World and I was hooked.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the exhibition.  It was housed at Atelier des Lumieres (light workshop), a 19th century restored foundry, in the 11th arrondissement, with much of its industrial architecture, including metal structures, a cistern, a basin, and a high brick chimney, left intact.  Making use of 140 video projectors and 50 speakers, I was blown away, no pun intended.  After sitting through the show twice, I commented to my cousins that it was probably the most amazing exhibition I have ever seen.  The show consisted of 3 parts.  The first created by filmmaker Thomas Vanz was a short cosmic display depicting the birth of the universe accompanied by dreamlike music called Verse.

This was followed by Dreamed Japan: Images of a Floating World by Danny Rose Studio. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese prints and they seemed to become an inspiration for some of his work.  Following these two shorts was Starry Night, the 35-minute main feature. More than anything, I think what made this so outstanding for me was the playlist.  It featured an eclectic mix which included Kozmic Blues by Janis Joplin, O Mio Bambino, Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto #2, Generique by Miles Davis, Mozart Recomposed during the Starry Night sequence, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone, and Brahms Concerto #2 in B Flat, to name a few.  The space, the music, the video….perfect.  I literally felt like I was in the paintings.  I told everyone I knew that was going to Paris that it was a “must-see” and at 14 euro ($16) a ticket a great value.

Recently, when I started seeing Van Gogh experiences advertised in cities across the globe,  I encouraged everyone to take the opportunity to see it.  One thing that shocked me, however, was the ticket prices in the USA, regardless, I still insisted it was a must-see.  When my roommate came home one night last week and asked if I saw that a Van Gogh Experience was opening in Warsaw on Friday, I went online that evening and bought a ticket (55 pln or $14) for opening day.  Friday arrived and I was excited to be headed to experience Van Gogh again.  I had one of the first ticket timeslots for the show.

The first thing I noticed upon entry was a large area, with high ceilings and some large screens placed throughout and hanging from the ceiling.  A massive space with some stools randomly scattered about.  Seeing photos and videos from various friends in the states who had seen the show, the spaces were very similar.   I immediately made comparisons to Paris, which while being a large space, had felt more intimate.  Okay, I know I am obsessed with Paris, it has my heart and everything there is perfect.  Well, if you know me, you know what I mean.  So maybe, just maybe,  I am being a bit partial.

So I cleared my thoughts, found a seat ( there were fewer than 20 people in the room), and got ready to be immersed.  The images were amazing although I felt like I was watching versus being one with them.  The music was, meh.  It just didn’t move me or draw me to the stories in the paintings.   The show lasted 30 minutes and I didn’t hear Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which was one of my favorites from the Paris show. Did I miss it?  I wanted to sit through it again to see if I was just being a Paris snob.  In all honesty, after two viewings, I just didn’t think it was as good.  Underwhelmed (is that a word), I took advantage of the beautiful weather and walked a bit before catching a bus to Old Town.  I say underwhelmed because I wasn’t disappointed.  It was, after all, a beautiful display of many of Van Gogh’s life works.  I still encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if you can.  What I am disappointed in is what they are charging for tickets in the USA, but that’s all I’m going to say about that subject.

When I got home that evening, I found my photos/videos from The Starry Night in Paris.  No, I wasn’t being a Paris snob, the show was better.  So, what’s Gogh-ing on?  Time to GTS (Google That Shit).  Much to my surprise, I made a startling discovery.  There are currently four different, yes, you read that correctly, four different shows touring the world, and none are organized by Atelier des Lumieres which was responsible for Van Gogh: The Starry Night in Paris.  Probably why I didn’t hear Nina Simone at the Warsaw Exhibition which was called Van Gogh Multi-Sensory Exhibition.  The one currently in Cleveland Ohio is Immersive Van Gogh, I believe.  Other shows are called; Van Gogh Alive, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience.  Confusing, right?  It is no wonder I have heard conflicting stories about this one being different from that one, better than, etc.,  depending on what city one saw it.

What does all this mean?  It means the show I saw in Paris was one of the best exhibitions I have seen.  I was underwhelmed in Warsaw but still enjoyed it.  I am disappointed in ticket prices in the USA because no matter which show comes around your area, I think it is well worth seeing.  I think it would be great for kids to see, but with the cost of tickets, I’m sure there are many who can’t afford to take a family of four.

I think the man who said, “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”, would be pleased that the world is seeing what he had in his heart.

If anyone is interested, the 3 parts of the Starry Night show in Paris listed above are links to the YouTube videos of the 2019 Exhibition.  It is also this exhibition that was featured in an episode of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris”.  I have also linked the Spotify soundtrack from the Paris exhibition and I recommend the movie “At Eternity’s Gate”