That Time I Let a Stranger Bathe Me – My Experience at a Moroccan Hammam

That Time I Let a Stranger Bathe Me – My Experience at a Moroccan Hammam

 

It used to be when I thought of Morocco, I thought of an exotic country with desert, sultan tents, camels, incense, mint tea, busy market squares, tajines, and couscous. 

Not that it isn’t all of that, well maybe not so much the sultan tents (but, they did exist on the rooftop of my Riad), there is so much more to this country. 

I was continuing my journey coming from Cairo to Casablanca.  The only thing I knew about Casablanca was Rick’s Café. I know, I know, Rick’s Café is entirely fictional and the was nothing more than a Hollywood set for the movie “Casablanca”.  So what, it’s been recreated in the city and how could I be in Casablanca and not visit Rick’s…??  My first evening I had a lovely meal and of course a gin Martini, “of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…”.  Truly a night to remember…I know, I know…different movie.

My only other goal in Casablanca was a visit to the Hassan II Mosque.  It is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world.  With an estimated 4 million mosques in the world (2019), number 7 is a big deal. Inside, the mosque can accommodate 25,000 people, and the outside another 80,000 worshippers.  I was blown away by this mosque.  Its location directly on the North Atlantic Ocean isn’t too shabby either. 

Casablanca is a large busy city and for 2 days there was plenty.  From Casablanca, I took the train to Marrakech where I had booked a Riad (guesthouse) in the heart of the Medina (historic old city).  Unfortunately, due to covid, tourism is almost non-existent. Although visiting sites like Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace were quite enjoyable being mostly tourist-free, the great square Jemaa el-Fnaa was empty. 

Normally 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.  I did see one guy with a monkey.  Although this was a bit disappointing especially after reading my friend Cheryl’s experience in her book, “Morocco: A Journey Through the Sands of Time”, I found Marrakech every bit as exotic and entrancing as I imagined.

After that long introduction, on to the naked truth….

Although it had slipped my mind, my first introduction to a Moroccan Hammam was in Cheryl’s book.  Hers seemed a bit harsher than my experience.  Most recently my friend Tertia told me of her trip to Marrakech and said whatever you do, visit a Hammam and then plan to do nothing the rest of the day as you won’t have the energy.  So what is a Hammam? 

In Arabic, the word hammam means, “spreader of warmth”.  A hammam is a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world. There are public and private hammams.  One of the “Five Pillars of Islam” is prayer. It is customary before praying to perform ablutions. The two Islamic forms of ablution are ghusl, a full-body cleansing, and wudu, a cleansing of the face, hands, and feet. You will almost always find hammams in the vicinity of mosques as public cleansing is part of the weekly ritual/lifestyle of the Islamic culture.  While many Islamic women are covered head to toe in public, they are naked in the hammam.  It is a place of gathering, bathing, and maybe even a little gossip.  People of Islamic faith often visit the hammam on Thursdays before Friday prayers.

Okay, so there are public and private hammams.  I’m at the point in my life, after living in China and squatting over a hole with numerous other women to do my business, getting naked in a public bathhouse is no big deal.  BUT (with one t, haha), since I had been warned I would feel like a jellyfish after, I decided to take advantage of the hammam treatment offered by my Riad.  Not only that, but it has been hellish hot here (108°) so the thought of traipsing back to my Riad in the heat, dust, and chaos of the Medina after a bath didn’t seem appealing.  Having been on the road for 11 weeks (secret meaning; I haven’t shaved in 11 weeks) I decided to also get waxed.  I mean if someone is going to wash me head to toe, I may as well get smooth before getting exfoliated.  She explained that since the scrub is also a skin treatment (because of the black soap and rhassoul), I should have the waxing done prior.  Yes, waxing at times can feel like putting duct tape on your skin and ripping it off…not that I’ve ever tried “waxing” with duct tape, but it’s what I imagine.  And yes, it does hurt a tiny bit in the more sensitive areas.  Waxing is over it’s time to get scrubbed….

The young lady gave me a pair of disposable bikini briefs to put on.  Honestly, they reminded me of an old fashion maxi pad without the padding but enough visuals.  She then gave me my robe and led me to a marble “bath” room.  Inside the room were several sizes of brass bowls and buckets along with smaller bowls, one filled with black goo or “beldi” and one with a reddish-grey claylike substance, “rhassoul” which eventually turned to a soft paste. 

Moroccan black soap or beldi soap is a high-alkaline Castile soap made from olive oil and macerated olives with a gel-like consistency. This gives the soap its characteristic dark greenish-black color.  Rhassoul is a cosmetic made of natural mineral clay mined from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is combined with water to clean the body and has been used by North African women for centuries to care for their skin and hair. Rhassoul contains silica, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, lithium, and trace elements.  There was also the kessa exfoliating glove. It is traditionally used with black soap to help promote soft, clean, and beautiful skin. At one time they were made from goat hair.  In a large marble sink, she had water running so the air was steamy.  There was a long marble bench with a pad and after she took my robe, she instructed me to sit on the bench. 

She then says sit for 5 minutes…. okay, the temperature is perfect, the sound of the running water relaxing (water should be flowing as standing water is seen as unclean), and I am alone with my thoughts and breathing in the steamy air.  After 5 minutes, she returns.  She has changed into leggings and a t-shirt and pulled her hair up.  I guess it’s time to scrub me down. She gets the small bowl of beldi.  She has me touch it and smell it.  I must be honest here, although it is made from macerated olives, I thought it had a bit of a barnyard smell.  Not that it’s all bad because I rather like a leathery barnyard smell.  I did a bit of research later and found that sometimes amber musk is mixed into the black soap so I may have been picking up that musky undertone.  Back to my bath…I am sitting on the marble bench; she fills one of the medium brass bowls from the marble sink with the flowing water and gently pours many bowls of perfectly warm water over my body. That was heavenly.  After I was sufficiently wet, she takes the black soap and rubs it all over my body.  She then told me to lay on the bench for 9 minutes.  I have no idea if there is a significance to the 9 minutes or just part of the calculation in the length of the bath.  Anyway, just as I was thinking she was never returning, and the soap was beginning to congeal on my skin the door opened, and she began pouring warm water on me.  It didn’t wash the black soap off but just remoistened it.  She then had me sit up and she took the kessa glove and began scrubbing my body. She had me lay down again and scrubbed me back and front before taking pumice and caring for my feet. Again she had me sit up and took bowls of warm water to rinse the residue from my freshly exfoliated skin.  It’s an invigorating sensation and I still think it smelled mildly barnyardy.  Next, she had me smell the clay-like substance which was very floral.  She then proceeded to rub this all over my body and was instructed to lie down for another 9 minutes.  The warmth, the sound of the flowing water, and my slightly tingling skin…. heaven on earth. When she returned, she had me sit up to be rinsed and then asked if it was okay if she washed my hair.  Are you kidding me? In my opinion, one of the most relaxing things is having someone wash my hair.  She washed my hair and then came the buckets full of warm water poured directly over my head. When my hair was sufficiently rinsed, she had me stand and braided my hair down my back.  Again I was asked to sit, and she took lavender-scented soap and again washed my entire body, rinsed me with warm water, and then cooler water.  She said the lavender was for me to relax before my massage. 

She then handed me my robe and led me to a candle-lit room with soft music playing and an infuser filling the room with a lovely scent. I then got on the table, she dried my body and proceeded to give me a 90-minute massage with perfectly applied pressure using argon oil.  After my massage, she told me to relax for 5 minutes, and then I was given some mint tea.  After which, I stumbled in a daze back to my room. 

That time I let a stranger bath me ranks up there with one of the top experiences of my life and I’m no rookie when it comes to spa treatments. 

All joking aside, the bathing ritual is an important part of the Islamic culture, and I learned a lot from this experience and would not hesitate to use a public hammam.  I only hope that my stories help bring to life the cultures, traditions, foods, and experiences that are so foreign to what we are used to. I may use a bit of humor when I write, but I have the utmost respect for the people I meet, the places I visit, and the experiences I have.  Peace Out!

 

You’re Never Too Old To Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling Part II

You’re Never Too Old To Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling Part II

I am currently sitting at my guesthouse in Giza, Egypt sipping my morning coffee and staring at the Giza Pyramid Complex. On the Giza Plateau sit the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. Three pyramids dominate the landscape and each one was built as the final resting place for a king from the 4th Dynasty also known as the “Golden Age” of the Old Kingdom.  The 4th Dynasty lasted from 2613-2494 BC.  It was a time of peace and prosperity.

I have been in Egypt, for 6 days.  These magnificent structures are the first thing I see in the morning as my guesthouse (which I highly recommend) gave me a “pyramid view” room. They are also the last thing I see at night as each evening I go to the rooftop and watch the sunset over these structures.  I still have trouble grasping the fact that I am looking at and have touched something over 4000 years old…. it’s mindboggling.  The smallest of the 3 great pyramids was built for King Menkaure, his son, and his grandson.  Don’t worry ladies, the queens got their own pyramids.  The middle pyramid was built for King Khafre.  The largest and oldest of the three was built for King Khufu 2589–2566 BC and is also known as the Pyramid of Cheops.  At an original height of 146.5 (481 feet), it would take 3,800 years before another building would exceed it in height.  This building would be Old St. Paul’s Cathedral (1300) in London.

The other structure that stands out and is right before my eyes is the Great Sphinx of Giza. The Sphinx is a limestone structure, and it appears to have the face of the Pharaoh, Khafre.  The mythical creature also sits in from of the pyramid of Khafre. Not only is it one of the most recognizable monuments in the world, but it is also the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt.

 

 

The most amazing thing about this view is looking at the Great Pyramid and realizing it is the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the only one mostly intact. I will say it again, it’s mindboggling. There are other structures on the plateau, and I will talk about my experience later.  I have always been fascinated by Egypt, hieroglyphics, the pyramids, and the Pharaohs, especially Tutankhamen. So, how did I end up ticking this bucket list item?  I want to take a minute to say again, “You’re Never Too Old To Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling” or for that matter too young.  A little over 7 years ago, I packed up my life and moved abroad.  I have lived in Paris, China, Bali, and my current place of residence is Warsaw, Poland.  In February of 2020, I got on a plane and landed in Poland to work for English Wizards. It is because of English Wizards I am fulfilling a dream.  No, they didn’t send me to Egypt.  They did however ask me if I was interested in working at a summer youth language camp in Bulgaria.  You can read about that here. I jumped on the opportunity and started thinking about where I might go after the 7 weeks of camp finished since I had booked only a one-way ticket to Bulgaria.  Greece, Turkey, Georgia, back to Romania were all thoughts passing through my wanderlust infected head.  I even considered taking the train from Bulgaria to Istanbul.  After a lot more thought, I realized the opportunity to add a new continent to my list was enticing.  I looked up flights to Cairo and on impulse hit the button to buy the ticket.  No looking back now.  A week or so later, I hadn’t made any plans (ticket) to return to Warsaw from Cairo.  Another bucket list crossed my mind.  It must be easier to get back to Europe from Morocco than Egypt, right?  Bingo…plane ticket to Casablanca booked and a return flight to Warsaw from Marrakech booked.  I could figure out how to get from Casablanca to Marrakech later.  By the way, I haven’t worked that out yet. Okay, I know I have gotten way off track from the Pyramids, but the point I really want to make is don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.  You are never too old, trust me…I spent 7 weeks remembering what it is like to be with kids and seeing their energy 24/7.  I turned 59 years young at Z Camp. Some nights I fell into bed exhausted and felt every one of those years and more.  But it was an experience I will never forget and might even repeat.  So, if I’m not too old, neither are you and you’re never too young.  Take that gap year, take any opportunity thrown your way.  I promise you won’t regret it. I also realize this kind of life isn’t for everyone.  I just happen to love it.  That’s how I ended up waking to the only remaining wonder of the ancient world.  I’d like to tell you a bit more of my experience walking in the steps of pharaohs, the land where it is believed Moses was pulled from the Nile in a basket…it is indeed holy ground.

 

 

I arrived at my guesthouse in Giza just in time for sunset.  I went straight to the roof with a bottle of water, trust me when I tell you it is hot here.  I sat in awe as the sun dropped perfectly behind the Pyramid of Khafre.  I was mesmerized.  I decided at that moment that I would start the next day exploring the Giza Plateau.  After a lovely Egyptian dinner of lamb chops and rice, my head hit the pillow and I had dreams of ancient Pharaohs.

My guesthouse sits directly across from the ticket office and entrance to the pyramids.  The price for the initial ticket is 200 Egyptian pounds or about $13.  Entrance to the Great Pyramid and any camel or carriage rides are extra and paid on site.  I have to insert a warning here, once you have your ticket in hand, you will be bombarded by locals wanting to ride you up the hill in a carriage (for a price of course) or wanting to be your guide (for a price of course).  They will tell you it is no cost, just tip what you feel.  I was warned by the staff at the guest house not to fall for this.  They have ways of making you part with more money than you wish.

For example, if you decide to ride a camel, get the price for on and off the camel.  You may think $10 to “ride” a camel is a good price, but if you didn’t negotiate to get off the camel, you may be in for a surprise.  “Ahhhh, $10 to ride madam, but $20 to get you down”.  Since I rode a camel when I was in the Gobi Desert, I didn’t have a desire to repeat the experience.

I had already decided I wanted to walk from the entrance up to the pyramids and was able to call everyone and their offers off after many stern “Nos”.  For the ones that were particularly persistent, I used the “maybe later” line.  With tourism just starting to come back, everyone vies for your attention.  Me with my light-colored hair (not to mention the colorful braids) stood out in the crowd a bit.  This did bite me, when I left the guesthouse the next day and someone yelled, “Wendy, (everyone wants to know your name) you said you would come back for a carriage ride in the afternoon.”  To which I replied, I am sorry, I was just too tired.  Not entirely a lie as I was exhausted, although I had no intention of finding him later that day for a carriage ride.

As I started walking towards the Sphinx, I was approached by an older gentleman in what looked like traditional garb and an official-looking identification around his neck. He started up a conversation with me. He had a soft, gentle voice and asked me how I felt being here.  After I answered him, I went on to explain, I was warned of all the “tricks” people will use to get your money.  He said he wasn’t there to take my money.  Yea, right.  I continued walking and he continued with me telling me different things about the pyramids and again asking me how I felt.  He then said I looked like someone who would like to meditate somewhere near the pyramids.  He told me he would show me a spot I could sit and be with my thoughts.

Okay, I know it sounds hokey, but his conversation with me was pretty much exactly what I was feeling.  I agreed to let him walk with me around the area.  I also said again, I wasn’t paying him.  He said, okay, just let me walk with you, show you some things, tell you some things, and at the end, I will walk away.   I spent about 3 hours walking the complex and talking.  I was the only “tourist” in the area we were walking in the beginning.  He showed me some new excavation sites, some minor monuments and did indeed take me to a spot where I could put my hands on an ancient object with hieroglyphics and left me alone for several minutes with my thoughts and a few tears.

We left this area and went to the pyramids.  I told him I wanted to go out into the desert to see them from afar.  I knew I would have to pay for either the camel or a carriage.  I explained I have already done the camel thing.  We negotiated the carriage ride, and a young Egyptian boy rode me out into the desert.

The view was spectacular, and I took amazing photos and he returned me to the pyramid of King Menkaure. The pyramid was not open for viewing but I did take some photos at the entrance to the tomb.

 

 

I met back up with my walking companion and he took me up close and personal to the Great Sphinx. I even took some fun photos.  It was starting to get very hot; it was just hot when we started out, a mere 93 but the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was climbing.  I was hot, thirsty even though I had a bottle of water with me, and tired. As fascinated as I am with the pyramids, I knew it was time to end my visit.

We started walking toward the exit and he asked me if I was as happy.  I was ecstatic but I also have learned that if asked if I am happy means I should make the person responsible for “my happiness” happy in return.  In other words, a tip without asking.  I had planned from the beginning to give him something as we parted.  I handed him a generous tip, he smiled and walked me a bit further.

As we parted ways, he handed me a small ceramic scarab.  The scarab is a symbol of renewal and rebirth. My visit to the Giza Pyramid Complex was complete. My soul was happy!

A few other pointers for a visit to Egypt:

It’s hot.  Even if you think you can handle the heat, it drains you.  You’ve heard it before but drink a lot of water.  Rest in the shade when you can.

It’s hot.  It drains the battery on your phone more quickly than normal.  It’s wise to have a power pack.  I didn’t and my phone died late in the afternoon before I could call an Uber.  This also means no google maps or google translate.  I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help make the hour trip from downtown Cairo back to Giza.  It’s only about 14 km but Cairo/Giza traffic is mad.

It’s hot.  Your laptop battery drains quickly when you are sitting on a rooftop looking at the pyramids while getting some work done.

Uber is easy to use and reliable.

Learn a few words in Arabic.  Shukran = thanks  La Shukran = no thanks

Don’t expect to find alcoholic beverages/cocktails.  Places are few are far between where you can get alcohol.

Try the local food.  Don’t be tempted to just duck into that KFC or Pizza Hut.  Local food is inexpensive and tasty, give it a try first.  If you don’t like it, there is always American fast food to be found.

Take your time.  Don’t rush to see as many things as you can cram into a day.  You will only end up, hot and exhausted and probably won’t recall half of what you saw. Take your time, read about what you are seeing, realize the magnitude of what you are seeing.  Some of these structures are over 4000 years old.

Don’t count on air conditioning.  May Ubers and taxis either have no air or don’t use it.  The Egyptian Museum didn’t have air-con.  Although, the newer museums do.  My guesthouse had ice-cold air and cold water always available.  This was a plus.  Just don’t assume everywhere will have air conditioning.

Finally, get caught up in the crazy, chaotic, colorful Cairo scene.

And remember, you’re never too old or too young to make your life a story worth telling!

 

 

One is Silver and the Other Gold

One is Silver and the Other Gold

Summer 2021 has found me in the seaside town of Kiten, Bulgaria situated on the Black Sea.

It is a resort town near the mouth of the Kiten river. It boasts two beaches, Atliman and Urdoviza.  So what has brought me from Warsaw, Poland to Kiten, Bulgaria?    Z Camp.

I was contacted by English Wizards and asked if I would be interested in working at an English Language and Sports Camp in Bulgaria. They had me at Bulgaria…

18 years ago, 4 young people from Gabrovo, Bulgaria came to Warren, Ohio USA, and the Trumbull County YMCA to spend one month working at the day camp.  I was privileged to host one of the teens in my home.  Of course, working at the YMCA and hosting, I got to know all 4 quite well and my partner and I even took them on a weekend excursion to Niagara Falls. Their time with us flew by and soon they returned to Bulgaria.  Despite promises of a visit and taking many trips to Europe, I never made it to Bulgaria.  However, one of the guys ended up coming to the states for university.  Here he met his future bride and is now living in Virginia, so I have seen Pavel in recent years.   Yani is currently living in Germany.  Hristian is in Bulgaria and will hopefully be able to visit.

Tony is married with a son and another on the way in August.  She is living in Gabrovo.  Her husband and 6-year-old son were attending a karate camp near where my camp is located.  When she found out it was the same weekend I was arriving, she made the 3.5-hour trip to spend the afternoon with me.  They picked me up at my camp and took me shopping for a few items I needed. Then we walked around town, had some pizza, and video chatted with another very special friend, Margie back in the states.  Her husband Steve made all the arrangements to bring the kids to the Trumbull County YMCA. We then returned to my hotel and spent some time sitting by the pool catching up.  I can’t tell you what it meant to me that she made this happen.  Our visit ended way too soon, and they had to get back to their camp and mine was starting the next day.

When this opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t say no.  So here I am…country number 39 of my travels and currently in week four of Z-Camp in Kiten, Bulgaria.

What could be better than spending part of your summer on the beautiful south coast of the Bulgarian Black Sea?  This year since we kicked our summer camp off on July 4th, which just happens to be American Independence Day, our first weekly theme was “The USA”.  As the campers arrived on Sunday, greeting old friends from prior camps, and meeting new friends who are experiencing Z Camp for the first time, the American Folk Song, “Make New Friends” came to mind.  “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. A circle’s round it has no end that’s how long I’m gonna be your friend.”  Eyes lit up, and smiles formed as campers saw friends they hadn’t seen in a year. Shy glances and eyes filled with wonder from new campers as they looked around and saw their home for the next couple of weeks.  Luggage was stowed in assigned rooms, phones were turned in, money was put in the “bank” and kids were in swimsuits and jumping in the crystal waters of the camp pool. I should mention here that this isn’t a typical camp you think about in the USA. Camps in Bulgaria are housed in hotels and make use of the hotel facilities and grounds.

Soon it was dinnertime.  Everyone was famished because swimming can certainly make you hungry.  Old friends sitting together catching up, new campers getting accustomed to the routine and meeting other “newbies”, staff trying to make everyone feel welcome and laughter filled the air. After dinner, we gathered at the classroom area and everyone received their phone so they could call mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or whoever they needed to let know that all was great at Z Camp.

Z-Campers turn their phones into staff at arrival and have access to them once a day, in the evening after dinner.  As the days went on, it was interesting to see that many didn’t even use their allotted time. They made their necessary calls, turned the phone back in, and got on with whatever activity they were engaged in.  Of course, there are some addicted to social media and had to post a daily tik tok or Instagram shot, but for the most part, I was surprised to see how easily they parted with their treasured smartphones.

The first evening activity was ice breakers.  This means time for fun!  Z Camp’s super-fabulous activity staff had plenty of great games planned.  We heard more laughter and saw more friendships being made. We even set off “sparklers” and shouted, “Happy 4th of July”.  However, the long day and excitement was catching up with our campers and yawns started becoming contagious.  Time for our first night’s sleep at camp.

Welcome to day one. Since Z Camp is an English and Sports Camp, one of the first things we did was test English levels.  Campers were split into four groups and one of the teaching staff administered the test.  Instructions were given in English and Bulgarian to make sure the campers all understand what they should do.

Everyone was happy when the testing was behind them because they knew that meant they would go to the beach in the afternoon. Lots of fun in the sun was followed by dinner and then evening activity which was a quiz night.  Time to see how much they knew about the USA.

We woke to rain on day 2 of camp.  By the way, wake up is 07:20 with breakfast at 07:50. After breakfast, it is usually beach time.  When it rains the itinerary is switched up a bit in hopes that the weather breaks and we can go to the beach or swim in the pool in the afternoon.  On a typical day, we have one English lesson in the morning and two after lunch.  This rainy day we had two lessons in the morning.  The testing the day before allowed the academic director to divide the kids into appropriate classrooms for their age and English level.  Also scheduled in a typical afternoon are sports activities, after all, Z Camp is a language and sports camp.

Anyways, you get the idea.  We get up…we have breakfast…we go to the beach…we have English lessons…we have lunch…we have two English lessons…we have an afternoon snack…we do sports…we have dinner…we have phone time…we have an evening activity…bedtime is 21:30 with lights out at 22:00.  There is a security person on duty overnight on the wings of the 2 floors boys on one, girls on the other) occupied by Z Camp and staff. Then on occasion, some of the staff sit at the outdoor pool bar and relaxes a bit after very active days.  As a side note, all staff isn’t present at all activities, we do have some needed downtime.

Since we have a rolling enrollment with some kids leaving on Saturday mornings and a new bunch arriving on Sunday afternoons, we have a new theme each week and switch up the activities as much as possible.  Kids stay two, three, or four weeks at a time so we do our best to keep it interesting.  Time certainly flies by at camp which is how I have arrived at week four in the blink of an eye.  We also take 2 off-site excursions each week.  I’ve taken you through a couple of typical days but now a little about some of our activities and excursions.

Did you know Bulgaria has a prehistoric rock formation just a few kilometers north of the city of Primorsko?  It is a natural rock formation consisting of megaliths of hardened magma that erupted from a Mesozoic era volcano.  If you don’t know what a megalith is, Z campers can tell you because they have been there.  A megalith is a large prehistoric stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. … Most extant megaliths were erected between the Neolithic period. The site is an open-air museum maintained by the Burgas Historical Society. Beglik Tash is visited annually by 40,000 tourists and is affectionately called the Bulgarian Stonehenge by the locals.  It’s cool we could visit while at Z Camp.  It was great fun trying to squeeze through the crevices and climb around the rocks.

After leaving Beglik Tash we arrived at the Strandzha Nature Park, we had lunch, and then boarded a boat for an hour-long river cruise on the Veleka River. If you didn’t want to cruise you could paddle kayaks up and down the river. After the boat ride, we did some rifle shooting and then back in the boats for a water gun fight. Everyone returned to shore soaked to the skin. Veleka River is part of Sredna Gora Tectonic Zone in Strandzha Natural Park. It empties into the Black Sea.

During the week the campers can also choose from a variety of sports activities, including volleyball, windsurfing, football, tennis, horseback riding, and swimming.  Evening activities range from movie night, karaoke, board games, and quizzes to a murder mystery night.

Four weeks have flown by.  I started this blog with a story from 18 years ago.  I had just had a visit from one of the four “kids” who came from Gabrovo, Bulgaria to Warren, Ohio.  It seems fitting that I should end it today with a visit from another one of those kids.  Hristian and his girlfriend Dessi decided to take a holiday at the sea.  They were staying in the nearby town of Sozopol so Hristian would be able to visit.  We shed a few tears and shared a lot of laughs.  It is amazing and I am blessed that after 18 years it feels like yesterday.  We met up in Kiten and had lunch at the seaside. We then went for a cocktail and had a video chat with Margie back in the states.  I’m good at catching her just as she is waking, sorry Margie.  I think she forgives me.  We didn’t say goodbye but see you soon as we made plans for me to visit Veliko Tarnovo and stay with Hristian before going to Sofia to catch my flight to Cairo.

I am truly blessed to have met these young people 18 years ago.  I am fortunate to have traveled to 39 countries of this beautiful world and met people I may never see again but consider my friends. I have met people I consider family.  I never thought I would get to Bulgaria yet here I am at a summer camp teaching English.  I have great co-workers and have shared laughs and tears.  I think of my friends and family back in the states and sharing these moments with them.  As Nishan Panwar said, “Sometimes it’s not about the journey or the destination, but the people you meet along the way.”

 “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. A circle’s round it has no end that’s how long I’m gonna be your friend.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Never Forget

Auschwitz-Birkenau “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Never Forget

 

Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free…

Imagine traveling for days with 60-80 people in each “wagon”… Imagine arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau and being met by SS guards…Imagine being told to leave all your earthly belongings in a pile while you are escorted to a “shower”… Imagine being ordered to strip naked… Imagine that “shower” was a gas chamber…Imagine the fear…

For the hundreds of thousands of human beings, people, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, gypsies, Soviets, men, women, and children… they didn’t have to imagine. It was their reality…

For some, their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…mere hours!

I read this quote and thought it was a good starting place. “Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories awareness that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again. This is the work of humans, and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return.” Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner.

Relocating to Poland, yes, I knew of Auschwitz and some of the other camps, but I didn’t realize the magnitude.  Sure, we tell ourselves we know of the horrors, but do we?  Between 1933 and 1945 Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites. These other sites also included the ghettos.  In March of 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened outside of Munich.  Dachau was primarily used for political prisoners.  It was liberated in April 1945 making it the longest-running camp in operation.

Since arriving in Poland in February of 2020, I have visited Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Although, I will dedicate this post solely to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau and address Majdanek in a future post.

To most of the world, Auschwitz is probably the best-known symbol of the holocaust.  Although Auschwitz is often spoken about as if it is one camp, it is actually 3 separate camps; Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) also called Buna.  The original camp was opened in 1940 on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oświęcim.  The Germans changed the name of the city to “Auschwitz” and this also became the name of the camp.  The German name has led some to think the camp was in Germany, but it is in Poland approximately 75 km west of Krakow.  Its location put it at the center of German-occupied Europe.  Not only did the camp expand into 3 main camps, but also 40 sub-camps.  It is estimated that 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz alone and beginning in 1942 became the scene of the largest mass murder in human history.

Many of the men, the women, and the children of Jewish decent were sent directly after their arrival to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers. Their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…..mere hours.

Most of us have seen pictures of Auschwitz and other camps, but nothing can prepare you for the reality of coming face to face with the entrance to Auschwitz I with the inscription Arbeit macht frei (work will make you free).  The guide, with his gentle, soft voice and sad undertone led us solemnly through the gate, and then we stopped at the rear of a building, the camp kitchen.  This, he told us, was where the camp orchestra played.  Nice touch, right?!…prisoners playing music is the first thing you see/hear upon coming to camp…NOT.  Of course, there was a more sinister use of the music which was played as the inmates left camp in the early morning and returned in the late evening from their labor.  As one inmate stated, “the coordination of the marching labor commandos to the inexorable rhythm of the music, which many inmates sensed only subliminally because of exhaustion and apathy.”  Another prisoner said, “we often returned from the field with a comrade’s corpse in our arms and had to march to the beat of the music with our left leg.”  The music was also played during public punishments and executions as a demonstration of unlimited SS power.  However, another prisoner, Franz Danimann, said that the Leonore Overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio which was performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive.

Leaving the site of the camp orchestra we moved to the barracks.  Auschwitz I originally consisted of 22 brick buildings, eight of which were 2-story.  A second story was added to the others later and an additional 8 new ones built.  I visited on a warm sunny day in June (2021).  As I looked around, I saw nice brick buildings, green grass, flowers, and trees. It almost looked like an apartment complex.  The guide, in his quiet voice, reminded us that the camp did not look like this when it was a “camp”.  With the number of people confined to this space, trampling to and from the work fields, standing for hours during the role, and general moving about, there wouldn’t have been grass.  It would have been dirt and mud and many of the trees were planted later. He told us to picture it on a grey day in November and malnourished people without proper outer garments milling about.

Next, he led us to a building. Upon entering we are met by a sign that read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

In the first room, we entered there was no photography permitted.  Behind the glass wall, out of the nearly 8 tons that were found when Auschwitz was liberated, is 4000 pounds of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners before they were sent to the gas chamber.  It is here you really start to feel the human element. As you look at the hundreds of pieces of braided hair still intact, you start to picture faces, you imagine what it would have felt like to have your hair lobbed off “because of lice”.  You try to picture the woman with the long braid, what color were her eyes? But all you can picture is a woman with fear in her eyes still not realizing these were her last moments on earth.

Next, you walk into a room, and behind that glass wall are pairs of children’s shoes…not just 10 or 20 pairs but 100s or 1000s…then comes the room filled with the shoes of adults.  110,000 pairs of shoes were found after the camp was liberated.  You see a glass wall behind which are some of the 88 pounds of eyeglasses left behind.  Then there are the 246 prayer shawls and the 12,000 pots and pans brought to the camp by people who thought they would be resettled.  Finally, behind a glass wall, the 100s of empty canisters of Zyklon B.  Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s.  It consisted of hydrogen cyanide, as well as a cautionary eye irritant.  Our guide told us 1 canister contained enough pellets to kill 1000 people.  Imagine…this is just one building at one camp.

It is difficult just reading about the horrors of Auschwitz, but coming face to face with portraits of the men and women in striped uniforms lining the corridor as we entered Barracks 6, the prisoners barrack, is haunting.  Looking into their eyes, seeing their nationality, their date of birth, and date of death you realize not one of these faces looking back at you survived Auschwitz.

From the prisoners’ barracks, we slowly and silently made our way to Barracks 11, the Camp Jail and  Death Wall. Walking to the entrance of Barrack 11 the first thing you notice is a fenced-in courtyard and a wall we would later learn was the Death Wall.

It was here that the SS shot several thousand prisoners between 1941 and 1944.  The SS also shot more than 5000 “police prisoners” at the death wall.  Executions by shooting and hanging took place in the side yard at the “death wall” where so-called “punishment by the post” and flogging was also inflicted. The total number of prisoners brought to the camp for execution from outside the camp is not known.  As we walked through the building we were told the Germans held court here.  We saw the living conditions in the “regular” cells and then were told the horrors of the basement.

The basement had starvation cells, dark cells, cells with no fresh air, and standing cells which held 4 prisoners for 3 to 10 days with only room for them to stand. The first trials of mass killing of people with Zyklon B were held in the basement.  Finally, exiting the building you walk past the death wall.

It is hard to comprehend what took place at that wall when the guide tells you to take notice of the Barrack across the courtyard with the blackened windows, Block 10.  It was here that German gynecologist, Professor Carl Clauberg, carried out criminal sterilization experiments on women prisoners.

As we are slowly making our way back through the camp, I can’t comprehend that I have seen only 3 buildings out of 30 and this is only one camp out of more than 44,000 camps and incarceration sites.  I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings into words.  Even if I can’t find the words, deep inside I will never forget how I felt.  We continued our walk, past the kitchen and the site of the camp orchestra. It was also here that roll call took place and also the public hangings on the multiple gallows while the camp orchestra played.

As we were finishing our tour of Auschwitz I, our guide led us toward what looked like a small hill.  Before the war, it was a Polish Army ammunition bunker.  As soon as I entered the first barren room, I knew something more evil had taken place here.  Then I saw the ovens….

The largest room was designated as a morgue to hold the bodies of murdered prisoners.  Crematorium furnaces capable of reducing 340 corpses to ashes per day were installed in the adjacent room. From the autumn of 1941 to the beginning of December 1942 the morgue served as a gas chamber.  The yard outside, surrounded by a concrete fence served as an undressing room.  SS men used Zyklon B to kill thousands of Jews and several large groups of Soviet prisoners of war here.  For the most part, the building has been preserved in its original condition.  When the gas chambers in Birkenau were operating, the furnaces and chimney here were dismantled.

With the construction of the higher capacity crematorium at Birkenau, 4,576 corpses could be burned per day in the 5 crematoria.

“You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here:  remember their suffering and show respect for their memory”  Signage in the gas chamber/crematorium.

After finishing the Auschwitz I tour, I was numb.  I was thankful for some time to regroup before we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Maybe even more chilling than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I is the entrance to Birkenau also known as the “Gate of Death.”

Leaving Auschwitz I, we had a short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Arriving at Birkenau, you are left off some distance from the camp and given instructions to walk along a road to the entrance of the camp and our guide would meet us there.  It seemed strange that we were left off so far from the entrance…. Until, as you are walking along the railroad tracks, you see the brick structure which was the main SS guardhouse, and you follow the rail to the gate through which the trains with wagons stuffed full of people passed. For many who passed through this gate, not knowing that it was their last day on earth…. then you understand the unimaginable.

Our guide led us through the entrance gate, and we paused.  Spread out in front of us 432 acres of land, 300+ buildings mostly wooden barracks, some brick barracks, and the remnants of barracks, we stared at what was the largest center for the extermination of Jews.  Our guide asked us to walk silently along the tracks until we came to “the ramp”.  The trains stopped at the ramp or unloading platform that was the central point in the camp.

This spot was the destination for trains carrying more than a half-million Jewish deportees to Auschwitz. Most of the new arrivals were classified by SS doctors as unfit for labor and murdered that same day in nearby gas chambers.

Placed at the ramp in 2009, the Wagon is a reminder of the conditions in which the people were brought to the camps. It is also a symbol of the Holocaust as it took place in Auschwitz.

We continued walking to the end of the railroad platform.  Here between the ruins of the gas chamber and crematoriums, which were blown up in January 1945 by the SS, 800 meters (.5 miles) from the main gate, stands the monument to the victims of Auschwitz…the nearly 1 million Jews – men, women, and children – and the prisoners of other nationalities who either died or were murdered in the camp.  Not far from the ruins, there is a pond…one of the places where human ashes were strewn.

As we made our way back, we stopped in one of the brick barracks, part of the women’s camp.  Left mostly as it was, we were shown the living conditions of the camp.  Designed for 700 people, containing 60 3 tier bunks. Each of the 180 sleeping places had a nominal capacity of 4 people (in practice, 6 or 7). Prisoners slept on straw scattered on the boards of the bunk without pillows. The lower bunk was often a dirt or brick floor. Several people shared a single blanket and many of the small stoves to heat the interior were for show or insufficient to heat the interiors. The sickest were always on the bottom and between the odor of sweat, the excrement, and vomit dripping from above, they had little chance of survival.  The barracks were usually lice and rat-infested also.

As we made our way out of the camp, I paused at the entrance gate to the women’s camp.  Like at Auschwitz I, the camp orchestra played marches while the women were going to work and then returning to camp. As I paused, I tried to imagine what it was like…I couldn’t, as it is incomprehensible.  Even after hearing the stories and seeing the evidence, it is nearly impossible to imagine the atrocities.  Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz.

Throughout both camps are actual photographs showing life at Auschwitz.  Photos of the people on the ramp, including images of the SS carrying out selections on the new arrivals.  Images of people going to the gas chambers or awaiting death, as well as the sorting of things that belonged to the murdered.  After the liberation of the camp over 200 photographs, which the SS didn’t destroy, taken at Birkenau were found, along with about 39,000 negatives of newly arrived prisoners.   I was physically and emotionally drained when I returned to Krakow that evening.

The site of the former camps was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.  I have only touched on what I saw and what I felt on this day.  It was overwhelming and something I will never forget. I would like to end with something I read in a booklet I purchased, Auschwitz-Birkenau the Past and the Present as I think it has a powerful message.

“In keeping with the act passed by the Polish Parliament in 1947, the task of the museum was to safeguard the former camp, its buildings, and environs.  To gather evidence and materials concerning German atrocities committed at Auschwitz, to subject them to scientific scrutiny, and to make them publicly available.

Despite this, there is still much debate amongst former prisoners, museum experts, conservationists, historians, teachers, and the mass media on how to organize, manage and develop the museum.

Even before the museum was opened, people wondered whether it should limit itself to reconstructing history, or rather explaining and clarifying the principal mechanisms underlying the criminal system.  Views on the matter differed radically:  some believed that the site should be plowed over, others demanded that every single object be retained and protected.

The very word “museum” is also a topic for debate.  Not everyone accepts the name “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum”.  Some believe that the former camp is a cemetery, others that it is a place of memory, a monument, others still regard it as a memorial institute, research, and education center on those who were killed.  The museum, in fact, fulfills all of these functions, as they do not cancel out, but rather complement one another.”

“Auschwitz is forever a painful expression of the world’s bad conscience.  The remains of the Nazi death camp remind us of the darkest moments of human history.”  Donations can be made via the website www.auschwitz.org

I commend the people of Poland and the administration of the museum as one of the basic activities of the center involves cooperation with young people and teachers from Poland and abroad.

Using Jakdojade Mobile App For Warsaw Public Transportation

Using Jakdojade Mobile App For Warsaw Public Transportation

Warsaw or Warszawa in Polish is the capital and largest city in Poland.  It sits on the Vistula River in the east-central part of the country with a population of about 1.8 million residents. If you take into consideration the greater metropolitan area, it comes in at 3.1 million people.

The first time I came to Warsaw was for 3 cold grey days in November 2014.  Knowing little about Poland and even less about Warsaw, I booked a hotel that was on the outskirts of the city about 15 km from the center.  So how do I get to the city?  I knew I wanted to go to Old Town but knew little else.  I don’t think I had a clue about Uber, let alone an app.  I don’t recall much English being spoken, but somehow, I managed to find out I could go to a bus stop near the gas station next to my hotel.  I made it into the city and exited the bus near the Palace of Culture and Science.  I honestly don’t remember how I got around other than I used public transportation.  Not speaking Polish, I somehow figured it out, got around the city, and made it back to my hotel each night.

February 3, 2020, I arrive in Warsaw for a second time having committed to working for English Wizards teaching, you guessed it… English.  This time for a bit longer than 3 days.  Actually, I had no idea how long I would be staying…18 months was my guess at the time.  Who knew a global pandemic would stop the world and that I would love Poland and decide to stay for an indeterminate time? With a bit more luggage than my last visit of three days and armed with a smartphone and the Uber app a car quickly pulled up and whisked me away to my temporary Airbnb digs in the Warsaw suburb of Ursus.  Walking distance from my flat I was able to stock up on the “bare necessities of life” (sung in your best Baloo voice).  I would be in my temporary residence for 3 weeks which would give me time to firm up a job offer and find a flat to rent long-term.  I had a job interview for a language school that first week.

Still not familiar with the public transportation system, I took an Uber to my interview.  I was offered a job in the office that day. Next step finding a flat in the city center as I would be teaching Business English at several companies in Central Warsaw.  I decided I better ask about public transportation.  Even though Uber is reasonably priced, it can add up rather quickly.  I got the best piece of advice before I left the office that day…download an app called Jakdojade –  https://jakdojade.pl/lista-miast

Jakdojade is a public transportation app that provides detailed directions and transport options for most cities in Poland. I have used the free version for almost a year and a half and haven’t felt the need to upgrade to the paid version.  The paid version has no ads.  So, how do you use it?  Since it is a mobile app, you will need an Android,

 

Windows or iOS smartphone and an active data connection.  After downloading the app, you will need to create a profile and set up a payment method(s).  There are options to put funds in a wallet, use BLIK (through my local bank), google pay, or add a card.  I have all 4 options set up.  Now let’s go somewhere….

Open the app…it will ask you, Where are we starting? and Where are we going? You can choose the current location or physically enter a starting point.  Then enter where you want to go.  There is also an option to choose from on the map.  After putting in the starting and ending points there are some other options available.  You can change the time if you are looking for a future departure or if you prefer a certain mode (bus, tram, metro or train) you can select those now.

I’m usually looking for something at the current time and although my favorite mode is the tram, I leave all options open and usually choose the quickest and the one that has the least walking to and from the stops. Now you will most likely see an ad and below that an arrow.  Touch the arrow and you will be shown available options. Once you choose the option that best suits you, you will see a schedule of stops on the way to your destination and if you have to change trams or bus to tram, etc. It also tells you how soon the departure is.  Next, you will choose Buy Ticket.  It will also show you the price of the ticket because depending on your destination you could need a 20-minute ticket or a 75-minute ticket (there is no in-between). You will be asked if you want to validate the ticket.  Only do this if you are already on the bus/tram. In Warsaw, it has recently been changed so you must validate the ticket when you board the vehicle.  This is done by scanning a QR code inside the tram/bus.  This can be tricky and has caused complaints from users.  If you don’t scan in a certain amount of time, the application locks you out for a few minutes.  QR Codes are often placed high and above the handrails that you hold on to.  Yes, I have been locked out and have just waited until it unlocked and then re-scanned.  I keep my fingers crossed the transportation police don’t decide to board and check tickets while I’m locked out.

Once onboard, you will also find signage showing the entire route and you can follow the stops.  There is usually an announcement (in Polish) telling you the current and next stop. On the main page when you open the app, along the bottom is Trip, Schedules, and Tickets.  It defaults to trip which is where you can enter starting and ending points.  You can also view schedules that take you to a page and you will choose, tram, bus, metro, or train and then the route number you would like to view and it will show you all the stops from start to finish.

Finally, if you know your route, you can just press tickets and you will have the option to purchase 20 minutes, 75 minutes, 90 minutes, one day (zone 1 or 1&2), three days (again with zones), weekend and group tickets.  Warsaw transportation has two zones.  Most likely you will only need zone 1 which covers Warsaw and several municipalities.  Zone 2 consists of towns and villages outside of Warsaw.  When you choose the ticket option in the app, it will also show if you have any previously purchased and unused tickets.  If you do, you will have the option to validate them here.

If you use the app to purchase a ticket to use the metro, you will be given a code in the app to scan before entering the metro station at the turnstile.  Also, if you aren’t traveling alone, you have the option to buy multiple tickets at once.

It’s really not as complicated as it might sound.  If you haven’t set up any payment options or choose not to use mobile payments, the app is still great for checking routes and getting directions.  If you just use it for directions, tickets can be purchased at machines located all around the city and in the vehicles themselves. These will need to be validated after boarding. I will cover how to purchase these tickets and also the Warsaw Card (for long-term usage 1-3 months) in a future post.

I have found Warsaw transportation to be very user-friendly and quite convenient.  I mostly use the Jakdojade app during the winter months when I am not out and about as much.  In the nicer weather, I use my Warsaw Card and usually purchase 1 month at a time.  Once in a while, I can’t get a mobile signal and need to purchase a ticket at the machine or onboard.  My personal favorite are the trams.

In the summer months on weekends, they even run the historical trams on a “tourist route” (line 36).  If you choose you can leave me here as I am just going to tell you some useless but interesting information on Warsaw Trams.

The Warsaw tram network is a 132-kilometer (82 mi) tram system serving a third of Warsaw and serving half the city’s population. It is one of the largest in Europe operating over 750 cars. The history of tram transport in Warsaw dates to 1866 when a 6-kilometer (3.7 mi) long horsecar line was built to transport goods and passengers. In 1899 the entire tram system consisted of 30 kilometers (19 mi) of tracks with 234 tram cars and 654 horses operating 17 lines. By 1903, plans were drafted to convert the system to electric trams, which was done by 1908. On August 1, 1944, with the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the use of trams was suspended and the cars were used to build barricades.

In 1965, Warsaw saw the introduction of two-car trains and in 1977 three-car trains were added to line 36.  On June 23, 2005, the city launched the first water trams on the Vistula.  This summer the first 2 new trams will be arriving from the Republic of Korea with an additional 121 arriving between the beginning of 2022 and April of 2023.

Women have been working on the Warsaw Trams for 76 years. They were employed for the first time as conductors in 1942 when the men were taken to work by the occupiers. After the war, in 1949, the first course for a tram driver was organized. Since then, the employment of women in the Warsaw Trams has increased. Of the 1,400 tram drivers, 294 are women. There are 36 women in traffic supervision. The entire company employs 748 women, which is approximately one-fifth of all employees.

If you made it this far, thanks for humoring me and my fascination with the trams in Warsaw.  If you find yourself intrigued, you can read more about the trams here: https://tw.waw.pl/

Wendy Eat World (with due respect to Jimmy Eat World)

Wendy Eat World (with due respect to Jimmy Eat World)

 

Itinerant:  a travel lover who has a gypsy soul. 

Foodie:  a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby and is passionate about food.

I guess that makes me an itinerant foodie.  I took my first trip of a mere 350 miles when I was 3 days old and rumor has it that as a baby/toddler I ate anything put in front of me.  My palate was not picky.  Then came the pre-teen/teen years.  Can you believe I would eat spaghetti/noodles only with butter and I didn’t like pizza?  I had taken an aversion to tomato sauce.  Obviously, that isn’t an issue today, although I still don’t eat raw tomatoes.  My love of travel has stayed with my gypsy soul and my palate became more sophisticated. I often see those surveys on Facebook, give yourself 1 point for everything you won’t eat.  If you have followed my journey, you might say I am eating my way around the world and there are few things I haven’t tried, at least once.

Currently, I am located in Warsaw, Poland.  I have flatmates from Belarus and India.  Our common denominator is food.  We often spend Friday evenings cooking together, not only Indian, Belarusian, and American fare but whatever someone suggests.  Mid-week, we make a shopping list, a plan and have at it…. cocktails included.  For instance, we made margaritas the night we did nachos.

Someone, Barb Doster that would be you, suggested I should write about my culinary adventures. My hope someday is to write my story.  I have many stories that revolve around food, so who knows, someday in a similar vein to “An Embarrassment of Mangoes” my book could be reminiscing and recipes.  For now, how about a short (or maybe long) blog about a few food adventures with some recipes tossed in for good measure?

I’m not even sure I know where to begin, so let’s start with when I moved to Paris.  Paris which stole my heart.  Living in the La Ville Lumière is a whole different experience than being a tourist.  The first thing I noticed was there were no giant supermarkets…no Giant Eagle, no Kroger, no Publix…I did eventually find a Carrefour, but for the most part, everyone shopped at small specialized markets.  One place for fruits and vegetables, another stop for meat, one for seafood, a bakery, a pastry shop…no supersize anything.  You bought what you needed for that day or maybe two and everything was fresh.  Living abroad for the first time was a thrilling experience and I wasn’t quite into the food scene.  I spent my days just wandering the city, visiting museums, and café hopping.  Weekends were often spent taking the train to nearby villages and towns.  I did have restaurants and cafes that became favorites. I dined on many French dishes.  But if I think about my Paris life in regards to food, I will always think of crepe fromage (ooeey, gooey, cheesy deliciousness wrapped in a warm, thin crepe) from a small street stand a few streets behind Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore. I have eaten crepes throughout Paris, but these were my favorite.  I always take friends to this crepe stand when in Paris.  Even before my first trip to Paris, I had learned to make “clătite”.  Clătite is a crepe, it’s just the Romanian version that I learned to make for Tom. Basic crepes are actually quite simple but it does take a bit of practice to get the thickness correct.  The batter should be thinner than you think it would be.  Get the batter correct and then have a quality pan and you’re all set.  Tom liked them filled with cream cheese and blueberries or any other fruit.  I like mine savory, so crepe fromage is the favorite for me. 

Basic Crepes

                        1 ¾ to 2 ¼ cups whole milk

                        4 large eggs

                        ½ teaspoon kosher salt

                        1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

                        6 tablespoons butter, melted plus more for the pan

Once in a while, I added a drop or two of almond extract to the batter.  Everything went into the blender and whirred away.  The batter should be thinner than traditional pancake batter.  Over medium-high heat, heat up an 8–10-inch nonstick pan (I purchased a crepe pan) spread some butter around when the pan is hot. Pour ¼ cup of batter into the hot pan lifting from the heat and swirling the pan so the batter forms a thin circle. When the edges start to lift (about a minute), peek underneath.  If it is nicely browned flip over; cooking until the center is firm. Then slide onto a plate…of course if you are making crepe fromage the cheese will need to go onto the crepe after the first flip.  Fill with whatever your heart desires and enjoy. Nutella filling was quite popular in Paris.

The first crepe I usually botch (it still tastes good, just looks ugly) since I don’t make them that often, but once you get the hang of it…yummo!

After living in Paris, I moved to China.  I would call China home for 4 years.  You might be saying to yourself, “oh, I love Chinese food”.  Well let me tell you, Chinese food in the US, or even in Europe, is not the same Chinese food you get in China.  You can read more about “real” Chinese food here. Moving to China, I spent 2 weeks in Beijing before moving to the rural village of Xiashan.  When you live in a village of about 4000 people compared to the 21.5 million in Beijing, there is no Western food to be found.  You also aren’t going to find egg foo young, General Tso’s chicken, or egg rolls and forget about fortune cookies.  After Xiashan, I lived in Changning, a city in Hunan Province of about 750,000 (still small by China standards).  From Changning, I moved to a coastal city of Qingdao which had a population of 9 million.  After Qingdao, I spent my last 2 years in China in Dong’e, the population for the whole county was about 350,000.  Dong’e being the largest city in the county. In Changning, we had a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but that pretty much covered it in the way of Western food.  Qingdao had a little bit of everything and in Dong’e I was back to having just a KFC, which I rarely ate. 

A small amount of dumplings

If I had to choose 1 food to define my time in China, it would be dumplings.  No matter where I lived, dumplings were a part of daily life.  I have been a part of many dumpling-making sessions and could probably whip up a batch.  Although, I know I could never make them at the speed of my Chinese friends.  We would get together and 300 dumplings would appear in no time at all.  Aside from bugs and spiders on a stick, chicken feet, animal innards and grubs, and grasshoppers on the dinner table, I grew quite fond of food in China. Dumplings may define my China life, but my favorite food was Lanzhou LaMian/Niuro Mian or beef noodles.  I could eat them every day with a little chili oil.  My Chinese friends also loved BBQ.  BBQ in China is usually meat on a stick seasoned with plenty of cumin and grilled over wood or coals. 

Then there is the Chinese hamburger or roujiamo, which is really a pita-type bread stuffed with pork or lamb that has been stewed with cumin and hot peppers.  Another favorite was jian bing which is basically a crepe stuffed with a variety of ingredients of your choice.  I usually had chicken, lettuce, egg, and a spicy sauce. No matter where I traveled in China, I knew I could also find baozi which are meat stuffed steamed buns.  I liked to dip them in brown rice vinegar and garlic for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  The Chinese have a way with vegetables I can’t explain.  I can’t think of a dish I didn’t like, from cabbage to lotus root, eggplant, and marigold stems.  A popular side dish was cucumbers in garlic vinegar and chili sauce.  One of my favorite vegetable dishes was gān biān sìjì dòu 干煸四季豆 or dry-fried green beans.  I became quite proficient at this dish and that is the recipe I have chosen to share and I took it from Red House Spice which I have found to have to have the most authentic recipe base.

 

Dry Fried Green Beans

Group 1

350 g green beans, 12oz

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp cooking oil

Group 2

1 tbsp cooking oil

1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn

6 dried chilies, or to taste

80 g minced pork, 3oz,

1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine

1 tsp minced ginger

1 tbsp minced garlic

1.5 tbsp Chinese olive vegetable 橄榄菜

1 tsp light soy sauce

Roast the beans

Wash green beans and trim both ends. Pat dry with a clean tea towel.

Put all the ingredients from Group 1 into a resealable plastic bag. Rub around to evenly coat the beans.

Place onto a roasting tray (large enough to avoid overlapping). Cook in a preheated oven at 220°C / 425°F (Fan 200°C / 400°F or Gas 7) for 12-15 minutes until the beans become lightly blistered and brown.

Stir-fry

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok/deep frying pan over high heat. Fry Sichuan peppercorn and dried chilies until fragrant (do not burn).

Stir in minced pork and Shaoxing rice wine. When the pork becomes pale, add ginger, garlic, Chinese olive vegetable, and soy sauce.

Put in the beans then fry for 1 minute or so. Sprinkle salt and stir well. Serve immediately with plain rice and other savory dishes.

You will most likely need to find the Shaoxing rice wine and Chinese olive vegetable at an Asian specialty store.  I believe the wine can also be found on Amazon. The Chinese olive vegetable can be replaced by any preserved vegetable such as Sui Mi Ya Cai (Chinese preserved mustard green),  Zha Cai ( Chinese pickled mustard root) or all else fails just use some chopped up black or green olives.

gān biān sìjì dòu 干煸四季豆 or dry-fried green beans

Living in China, I was able to easily visit several countries on the Asian continent.  I traveled to Seoul South Korea on many occasions but never discovered a favorite Korean dish although I often went for Korean BBQ.  In Japan, I was introduced to yakitori which is skewered chicken cooked over charcoal and served with a variety of sauces.  In Tibet, I think I ate every dish known to man that could be made from yak…yak burgers, yak stew, yak butter, yak cheese, you get the idea.  In Vietnam, of course, pho is my absolute favorite.  Pho is a type of Vietnamese soup that usually consists of bone broth, rice noodles, spices, and thinly sliced meat (usually beef). Though “pho” technically refers to the noodles and not the soup itself, most people consider the dish a singular unit. It’s often topped with herbs and bean sprouts. A popular street food in Vietnam, pho gained popularity around the world after refugees introduced it to other cultures after the Vietnam War.  When in Vietnam, I generally eat pho every.single.day!  I also prefer pho from the south of Vietnam over what I have eaten in Hanoi and the north.  Here in Warsaw, I have found a pho shop and easily eat it weekly.  Just for the record, pho DOES NOT rhyme with “toe”.  It is pronounced more like “fuh” similar to “duh”.

Onward to the southeastern country of Indonesia and the island that has stolen my soul, Bali.  Sitting 8 degrees south of the equator, I discovered a new world of food.  The great thing about Bali, I was able to enjoy both Balinese and Indonesian dishes.  My first trip to Bali landed me in a homestay in Peliatan which is considered the Ubud area.  My hosts at the homestay were Koming and Ketut.  Lucky me, Ketut had been a chef at an Ubud hotel before opening their homestay.  I was fortunate to have many cooking experiences with Ketut during my stays in Bali.  On my last visit, I spent 4 months living at their home and became part of the family.  You can read how I “tumbled down the rabbit hole” to have Bali and Kenari House steal my soul here.  As crazy as it sounds, my Paris life and my Bali life are connected just like my heart and soul.  As you may have figured out. I am a noodle maniac.  Naturally, I had to find a noodle dish in Bali.  I first discovered soto ayam which is a chicken soup.  Then Ketut turned me on to mi ayam which was as addicting to me as pho.  Yes, I ate this dish almost daily.  I became quite spoiled living at Kenari House with Ketut, Koming, and their children, Kirana and Kiera.  They immersed me in Balinese life.  They often included me on trips to the night market for sate kambing (goat sate, marinated meat on a skewer and grilled) and other Balinese foods.  I attended Balinese ceremonies that often involved food.

Nasi Campur was a typical dish at gatherings.  Nasi means rice and campur means mixed. You would receive a dish with rice accompanied by sides of meat, vegetables, peanuts, egg, etc. often served on a banana leaf and eaten with the right hand.  Other popular dishes are nasi and mi goreng (nasi = rice, mi = noodles, goreng = fried).  Then there is pisang goreng. You already know goreng means fried so add the word for banana (pisang) and you have fried bananas, a typical street food.  No trip to Bali would be complete with trying baba guling or suckling pig.  Then there is gado-gado or mix-mix.  It is essentially a vegetable salad with long beans, corn, egg, bean sprouts, tempe, tofu, cucumbers, or any other combination of ingredients.  It is bathed in a classic peanut sauce and devoured.  I quickly discovered that many foods in Bali are served with sambal. Sambal is an Indonesian chili sauce made from a variety of chili peppers mixed with shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, shallot, palm sugar, lime juice, etc.  Each sambal can be individual to the person preparing it.  I for one never found sambal I didn’t like.  Some, I couldn’t tolerate the heat as well as others, but I never passed trying the sambal. 

Perkedel jagung or corn fritters is a popular Indonesian street food.  I had perkedel at Kenari House and also at another homestay I lived at while teaching at Yayasan Widya Guna school for special needs children.  Before leaving Bali, Ketut showed me how to prepare perkedel as it had become another favorite and I was always looking for it at the street stalls.  Perkedel Jagung is the recipe I have chosen to share from my Bali life.  Since we didn’t use a recipe when making the perkedel with Ketut, I took the recipe from here.

Perkedel Jagung

3 ears sweet corn, (or about ¾ cup per ear) or use 2.5 cups canned or frozen ear corn

1 carrot, (very small diced)

3 eggs

2 tbsp minced shallots

1 tbsp minced garlic

¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 tbsp chopped green onion

1½ tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

2-3 cups oil, (fill at least ¼-inch deep in a large frying pan)

Instructions

Cut the corn off the cob.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg with a fork until the white and yolk are combined, add chopped shallots, chopped garlic, chopped green onion, chopped carrots, salt, and pepper. Mix well until well combined, then add corn kernels, flour into the mixture, stir to combine everything thoroughly.

Heat the oil in a large deep skillet at high heat. Once hot, reduce the heat into medium heat.

Drop fritter batter by spoonfuls into the hot oil. Flatten them lightly with the back of the spoon, try to make them roughly the same size. Continue frying, and don’t forget to flip them as to cook them to a nice brown on both sides. Depending on the thickness, you may need to cook the fritters for about 2-4 minutes on each side.

Remove the fritters from the heat and transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate.

Repeat the process until you finish the batter.

Serve and Enjoy with your favorite dipping sauce. 

Of course, I love eating them with sambal.  A nice acar or Indonesian pickled cucumber pairs nicely on the side.

 

 

So much of my journey has gone hand in hand with food. I learned to make Thai green curry while staying at Muchshima House in Phuket, Thailand.

Whole roasted sheep in Inner Mongolia

I’ve eaten nearly every part of a whole roasted sheep while living in a yurt in Inner Mongolia. I’ve eaten gyros while sipping ouzo with locals at a taverna in Mykonos, fresh calamari on the seaside in Barcelona, street food in Mexico, amazing pizza in Naples and sipped Limoncello on the Amalfi Coast.  My culinary journey in Poland is still developing.  Coronavirus/lockdown measures have been a small bump in the road but I have still been able to enjoy traditional Polish fare in my excursions around the country and in Warsaw. 

Bigos

I have discovered bigos (hunter’s stew) which has become one of my favorite dishes.

Oscypek

While in Zakopane, I was able to have oscypek, smoked sheep milk cheese served warm with cranberry jam. There is also gołąbki (stuffed cabbage), rosol (chicken soup), żurek (sour rye soup with sausage), zapiekanka (Polish pizza), placki (potato pancakes), pierogi, and of course, kielbasa to name a few. 

When I started this blog, I had roommates from Belarus and India.  As of this writing that has changed to Belarus and Vietnam, so maybe I will learn some Vietnamese cooking.  Imagine if I learn to make my own pho.

Yes, I am an itinerant foodie and just like in the USA, I have discovered gathering in the kitchen to cook, share a beverage, and socialize is universal.  I am going to end with a quote from Guy Fieri, “Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people get together to eat.”

Now, I am going to go to the kitchen and prepare beef carpaccio for lunch.   As we say in Poland, “smacznego” or “enjoy your meal”.  

Beef Carpaccio

2020 My Year in Review – 11 Months in a Foreign Country During a Global Pandemic

2020 My Year in Review – 11 Months in a Foreign Country During a Global Pandemic

 

I have struggled with this blog. Most people would give the big FUCK YOU to 2020, but as I look back over my year, I have much to be thankful for, a lot of happy memories and good experiences.   I think we can all agree that 2020 was, well, different…2020 the year the world stopped turning…but perhaps Charles Dickens explained it best over 160 years ago… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The theme of duality in “Tale” certainly carried through 2020.  While Dickens’ characters simultaneously reflect the mirror images of good and evil, the story also shows us how human emotions, religious intensity, and a political situation set apart 2 countries.  These same themes in 2020 not only set apart countries, but we saw families tore apart and friendships shattered, not just in the USA but across the globe. 

The struggle being, how do you talk about 2020, a year in your life that was pretty damn good without diminishing the trials and tribulations it gave to so many?  November 17, 2019, I had just returned to the USA from living abroad and celebrated the holidays with family and friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 2 years.  I started the new year new decade also surrounded by family and friends. My brother and sister-in-law gave me one of the best nights of my life in January.  In February, I moved to a new country, Poland, to live.  I have a job. I have been travelling. I am healthy.  Meanwhile, I have family and friends losing businesses and jobs.  I know people who have quarantined themselves for 10 months.  I know people who have been sick and people who have died from Covid-19, yet I am saying 2020 was a good year…the struggle is real and no 2020 wasn’t always, “the best of times” but it certainly wasn’t “the worst of times”, for me.  With no further ado, my year in review:

December 31, 2019…I have been back in the USA for about 6 weeks. The first time in 6 or 7 years I have been spent the holidays on “home” soil.  I had a beautiful condo overlooking courthouse square in my hometown.  Family and friends had helped me move in and make it mine.  My cousin Bob pointed out that It would be the perfect place to gather to kick off a new year, a new decade. Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it was the place to be to welcome 2020.  I had an early dinner, which turned into a longer than planned dinner, with family and friends at a beautiful wine bar on the river in Warren.  While I was wining and dining, my good friends, Teri, and Michael were preparing my place for the big bash.  I finally arrived home and soon my place was wall to wall people.  Some ready to put 2019 behind them and others talking about plans for the new decade.  00:01 January 1, 2020…. champagne is flowing, laughter, hugs, kisses, pork and sauerkraut, shots, reminiscing about Y2K and here it was 20 years later, excitement for the new year, and most of all happiness and joy. 

Soon it would be January 9, 2020.  The reason I was in Warren Ohio…the Grand Re-Opening of The Robins Theatre.  I came because my brother Mark and sister-in-law Lori had turned a dream into a reality.  The historic Robins Theatre in our hometown…opened in 1923…. closed in 1974….sat vacant for 45 years….was re-opening.  The night was like the Oscars.  The marquee was lit and flanked by spotlights seen for miles.  The red carpet was laid because all of Warren, Trumbull County, and NE Ohio were the stars. Swag bags were passed out by the high school football players.  It was a black-tie night, and I was in my gown.  I live just around the corner from the theatre, a one-minute walk at most. 

At about 6 pm, a white stretch limo pulls up and Mark, in his tuxedo, gets out of the car and walks to me.  He puts his arms around me, and I immediately start to cry.  This is the night he has been waiting for.  He escorts me to the limo and once inside, pours me a glass of champagne and says, “here’s to mom and dad”.  The limo pulls away and drives around the block and Mark, Lori, and I, along with our family and friends walk the red carpet to the most amazing night of my life.

January flies by at warp speed.  Over a year prior I had committed to working in Poland (that would be in Europe, not Ohio).  As much as I loved my new condo and being home for the festivities, it was time to move on. 

I left for Warsaw, Poland on February 2, 2020.  I left with a commitment to a company called English Wizards. I arrived in Warsaw February 3rd and checked into my Airbnb I had rented in the suburb of Ursus for 3 weeks.  I arrived with no job placement and not knowing what city I might end up in.  Within the first 2 weeks, I had 2 job opportunities in Warsaw city center teaching Business English.  I decided I would stay in Warsaw so now I needed to find an apartment closer to where I would be working.  Little did I know that by mid-March, it wouldn’t matter my location as my work would become remote.  By the 3rd week of February, I was teaching Business English at 3 different companies and had found a flat in the Wola District of Warsaw, walking distance to all my classes. 

March 13, 2020…Poland announces it will close its borders and go into a strict lockdown for 14 days. This means all my classes will now be remote.  Hello, Zoom…not familiar with video conferencing, I had no choice but to be a quick study. I thought I would hate remote teaching, but I soon discovered it wasn’t that bad…until you have Wi-Fi/internet issues. Remote teaching also gave me the opportunity to pick up more classes than if I had to travel between companies. The last two weeks of the month weren’t anything to write home about, just teaching, walking to nearby restaurants for carry-out as they were closed to dine-in and trips to the supermarket…until March 28th when I learned that a person that was once near and dear to my heart was in ICU with coronavirus.  April 1st, coronavirus claimed the first victim that I knew personally, someone that I used to love…. A virus unknown to the world until a couple of short months ago. A couple of short months that changed the world. A couple of short months that changed me.

I never dreamed I would see Vatican Square in Rome…vacant, Times Square in the city that never sleeps…silent, or the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris…empty. What I did see was YoYo Ma virtually offering a daily song on his cello, yoga instructors offering free online classes, museums giving virtual tours, adults taking time online to read books to children and friends getting together for virtual happy hours. I saw kindness, love, compassion, and joy.  I saw people making the best of the times but before the year ends…it would be the worst of times.

April brought a continuation of restrictions in Poland, but not the strict lockdown of March.  As I got out and walked around the neighborhood, spring was in the air.  It was also encouraging to see restaurants setting tables up outside as indoor dining was still restricted. Even COVID-19 restrictions didn’t let me off the hook from obtaining my Temporary Residence Permit.  I got my documents submitted by post and waited.  Luckily, since I arrived prior to the lockdown and Poland was considered in a state of emergency, the normal 90-day limit on my tourist visa was extended until the state of emergency is lifted. April also brought virtual happy hours.  This meant virtual trivia with my friends at Jacked Steakhouse in Warren, Ohio.  It was something I looked forward to every week.  Restrictions were eased by mid-April and I was looking forward to May in Warsaw. 

Although many restrictions had been lifted, most of the museums were still closed so I spent my days walking around the city.  One museum that was open sits on the outskirts of Warsaw.  I hopped a bus and visited Wilanow Palace. 

I was also contacted by a friend in the states I met while deep sea fishing in Florida.  She said she had a friend that was living in Warsaw and hoped we could hook-up.  That’s how I met Tamara.  My walks took me to Lazienki Park, the Chopin Monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rondo Tybetu which has artwork dedicated to the “Free Tibet” movement painted under an overpass, the Keret House which is the narrowest house in Warsaw, various locations of Mur Getta or the walls of the Jewish Ghetto of WWII, and the outdoor markets.  I met Tamara a couple times at the Vistula River where we enjoyed strolling along the river and stopping for drinks at the various bars and cafes along the way.   It was announced that most of the restrictions in Poland would be lifted on June 6th.

June often found me heading to the Vistula to meet up with Tamara or just to walk and enjoy the views.  Frequent visits to Old Town and since the museums were now open, I visited several, including the Neon Museum, Pinball Museum, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the Palace of Culture and Science.

I also went to the Warsaw Zoo which played a big role in hiding and transporting Jews during the war and the Jewish Cemetery.  I discovered one of my personal favorites, the Vodka Museum.  The Vodka Museum also has a rooftop bar, Koneser Bar ¾ which became a regular weekend hangout for me.  It was announced that on June 13th Poland would open its borders which had been closed since March 15th.  I finally went to a Bar Mleczny or “milk bar” which were popular eateries during communist times. I discovered an Indonesian restaurant in Old Town and the dishes took me back to the flavors of Bali. One of the highlights of June was receiving my first letter from the USA, from my cousins Buddy and Joey.

As you can see, June was a busy month which I spent exploring Warsaw.  I also finally took my first trip out of the city.  Not far from Warsaw is the city of Lublin.  Auschwitz, in the city of Oswiecim, is probably the most well-known and widely visited “concentration camp” in Poland.  When reading the book “Lilac Girls” I learned of Lublin and the Majdanek Concentration and Extermination Camp which sat on its outskirts.  An easy day trip from Warsaw, I decided to pay a visit.  The camp had seven gas chambers, 2 wooden gallows, and approximately 227 structures making it one of the largest Nazi-run camps. 

The camp operated from October 1, 1941, until July 22, 1944.  It was captured nearly intact because the SS had no time to destroy it due to the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army. Most of the incriminating evidence of war crimes remained.  The building and grounds are now known as The Majdanek State Museum.  It is a memorial museum and education center founded in the fall of 1944. It is devoted entirely to the memory of the atrocities committed in the network of camps during World War II and was the first of its kind in the world. Visiting Majdanek is an experience I will not soon forget.

Wow, how did we get to the middle of Summer?  July in Warsaw brought beautiful weather and many trips to the river and Old Town where I finally visited the Royal Castle.  I discovered the night market which was the happening place to hang out on weekend evenings and a mere 10-minute walk from my flat.  I wandered the Praga District across the river and strolled galleries in Plac Konesera, which also happens to be the location of Bar Koneser 3/4, so of course, I stopped in on occasion.  I became a regular at the Tapas Gastrobar next to my house. 

I found out that Poland had beautiful lavender fields and took a day trip to Zyrardow to visit a lavender farm.  I still didn’t have my temporary residency, so it would have been difficult to travel outside of Poland in the EU because of my “expired tourist visa”.  This turned out to be a good thing because I was able to visit so much of this beautiful country.

August 1,1944 5:00 pm…the “W” Hour – the codename for Operation Tempest in German-occupied Warsaw.  In Warsaw, the month of August kicks off with remembrance of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising.  Every year at 5pm alarm signals and sirens blare, public transit, buses, trams, cars, and pedestrians stop in silence.  It was quite the experience to witness this.  Also celebrated in August is Polish Armed Forces Day.  I got to hear President Duda speak and had the opportunity to walk around the displays and meet current and former military personnel.

I treated myself to a birthday lunch at the Michelin rated U Fukiera in Old Town.  I dried lavender I got at the lavender farm in July and infused some gin and made lavender simple syrup.  I took a day trip to Sochaczew and visited the narrow-gauge rail museum which included a train ride to the Kampinos Forest and a picnic.  On the coronavirus front, Poland banned 45 countries from crossing its borders.

September found me on a “class trip” to the city of Lodz.  A trip organized by my students at AXA Insurance.  What a great day we had touring the city, eating, drinking and even a tuk-tuk ride. The first weekend in September, I caught a train to the northern city of Ketrzyn. From here I took a taxi to Gierloz, the location of Wilczy Szaniec or Wolf’s Lair which is the abandoned site of Hitler’s Eastern Front Headquarters.  I stayed on-site in a renovated bunker and explored the area for a day and a half.  Then I returned to Ketrzyn for another day of exploration.  Here I visited a Christmas Bulb factory and accidentally crashed an office party at my hotel.  After crashing the party and a few nips of vodka, I was led on a 20-minute trek to see some street art. Piotr told me it was a Banksy…not likely, but it was a fun evening.  Before the month’s end, I had discovered Kilometer Zero in Warsaw, went to a Viking Festival and sampled mead, visited the POLIN, and viewed “The Poisoned Well” at the National Museum. 

The Poisoned Well was a controversial temporary exhibit featuring Pope John Paul II holding a massive rock and standing in a pool of red water.  Tamara and I spent a rainy Sunday eating hot dogs and watching the Warsaw Mets play American Football.  I also took on several more classes to start the fall semester. Most importantly in September, I voted and took my ballot to the US Embassy to be sent to the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

Welcome to October and the 4th quarter of 2020.  October started out with a fabulous trip to the Baltic sea.  The tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia kept me entertained for 5 days.  I enjoyed strolls on the beach and sipping wine at cafes in Sopot. I also walked the longest wooden pier in Europe and saw the crooked house. I took a train from Sopot to Hel Peninsula and then a ferry boat to Gdynia where I wandered the waterfront.  I spent a half-day in Gdansk Old Town and took a bus to Westerplatte, a peninsula in Gdansk which is the site of the first battle of WWII.  I witnessed glorious sunrises over the Baltic Sea and hope to return to the tri-cities.  I guess you could also say October took me to “Hel” and back.

Returning to Warsaw my classes were in full swing, and I had new roommates, Valeria, and Nikita from Belarus.  Vish from India has been my roommate since I moved in. Well, Valeria had a small incident that ended up bonding us together. She decided to clean the exhaust screen from our stove and figured the best place to do was the bathtub.  Next thing I know, I hear someone (Valeria) crying.  I leave my room to investigate and she is on the phone to Nikita explaining/crying in Russian that she “broke” the tub.  She didn’t really “break” the tub, but whatever combination of chemicals she was using kinda sorta started to make a hole in the bottom of the bathtub. By now Vish has also come from his room and we are trying to tell her not to worry that we will figure it out.  Luckily, Nikita works in the construction industry and he was able to repair/patch the area, repaint and seal and you would never know anything ever happened.  That little incident formed a bond between us, and we have all become great friends as well as roomies. 

But this is where October takes a slight downward turn. We have another roommate, and he came home one day and announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.  The only symptoms we noticed were a slight cough.  He also informed us that he had to quarantine for 10 days and would turn our phone numbers into the health department.  He stayed mostly in his room for the next 10 days and well that is pretty much it as far as our quarantine.  No one else developed any symptoms or got tested.  I did have one day I felt like I had a hangover, but I did have a couple drinks with the other roomies the night before…so, who knows.  I wouldn’t think a couple drinks could give me a hangover.  Things in Poland are about to get a little worse as the number of infections took a steep upward swing as it was in most of Europe.  Restrictions were once again tightened.  Then an announcement regarding a ruling on abortions was made and this triggered protests across the country.  It was called a Women’s Strike and marches took place.  The largest one was scheduled for Friday, October 30th in Warsaw.  One of the starting points was just a few blocks from my house, so I decided to go and check it out.  I witnessed a peaceful march but did not go with the crowd to their destination. 

November rolls in with controversy.  All Saints Day, November 1st is a National Holiday in Poland and people go to the cemetery to lay flowers and candles on the graves of their loved ones. With the Women’s Strike protests still going on (they started October 22nd) and coronavirus infections increasing, the government, at the last minute decided to close the cemeteries from October 31st to November 2nd which affected flower producers and vendors.  This sparked more protests on November 1st.  Protests/Marches continued through December 13th protesting not only the women’s issue but also protests by farmers and teachers, protests against the church, and protests regarding coronavirus restrictions. I’m not sure why or how they finally ended.  Between the weather getting cold, the protests, and the restrictions, I had a quiet November. I spent one Sunday afternoon walking around Fort Bema.  It was a perfect fall day, and the trees were still changing their leaves.  During the month, I also went for a couple massages.  I got invited to and attended a Thanksgiving Dinner. We also prepared a turkey dinner in our flat the weekend after Thanksgiving and had a few people over. 

November 30th, I returned to Wilanow so I could see the Royal Garden of Light display.  It did not disappoint, but oh my it was cold and that cup of grzane wino (mulled wine) sure did hit the spot. Meanwhile, in the USA, the presidential election is turning into the worst of times….

December arrives and it seems like most people are counting the days until they can kick 2020 right out the door.  At my flat, we started doing a little Friday night thing. We would pick a cuisine and prepare a meal together and then enjoy some cocktails. Sometimes just us and sometimes with friends.  Warsaw was starting to prepare for Christmas and lights and decorations were going up all over the city.  I was considering a trip to Istanbul over Christmas, but one day Valeria came home and said, “Let’s go to Zakopane” for Christmas.  So, I booked the train tickets, and she booked our rooms.  We would take an overnight train and arrive Christmas morning.  The first couple of weeks of December were quite temperate, and it was fun getting out and seeing the city become festive.  I even saw a Salvation Army Red Kettle and bell ringer. 

I made it a priority to get to Old Town to see it in all its festive glory.  Of course, I picked the coldest, most windy day we had.  Again, the grzane wino was just what I needed.  We continued our Friday night cooking and cocktails. We put up a few decorations.  I continued my massages. 

The next thing we knew, it was time to leave for Zakopane and Christmas.  Zakopane was the Aspen of Poland.  The mountains were beautiful.  We trekked 3 hours up the mountain and back on Christmas day in light snow.  I fell twice coming down and the next day thought I had been hit by a truck.  Massage when I got back to Warsaw.  We had a beautiful Christmas holiday in the Tatra Mountains.  Sadly, the week of Christmas, I lost 3 friends.  All non-covid. 

We finished the year out by having a small New Year’s Eve party…champagne, pork & sauerkraut and old lang syne as we welcomed in 2021.  

2020, truly… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

 

Polin…Rest Here! A Brief Look at Jewish History in Poland With Focus on WWII

Polin…Rest Here! A Brief Look at Jewish History in Poland With Focus on WWII

My first visit to Warsaw was November of 2014.  It was grey and cold.  The short 2 and half days I spent here gave me no clue as to the interesting yet horrific history of Poland.  I returned to Poland on February 3, 2020. This time to call Warsaw my home as I arrived with plans of teaching English.  Yes, I am teaching English for English Wizards, but I too am a student as I wandered around Warsaw and learned more about WWII, Poland, and the history of Jews in Poland.

One of the first things I noticed were the many memorials to the Polish people and Polish Jews.

Although I am neither Polish nor Jewish, after seeing so many reminders of the Polish and Jewish History, I found myself wanting more information….and so my journey of discovery began…

Before After WarsawBy January 1945, between 85% and 90% of buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed.  It came close to not being rebuilt, but as former residents flocked back to the city, they began the reconstruction process on their own.  Warsaw’s Old Town was meticulously reconstructed using original materials gathered from the rubble.  It became a UNESCO Site in 1980.

 

My interest in Jewish Poland and Poland during WWII peaked the more I wandered around Warsaw as I saw monuments and memorials, as I read the books “The Zookeepers Wife”, “Lilac Girls” “The Book of Lost Names” and “The Rabbit Girls” and my friends on Facebook, some Jewish, commented on my posts.

I learned about 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. It is also a place of meeting and dialogue among those who wish to explore the past and present Jewish culture, those eager to draw conclusions for the future from Polish-Jewish history, and finally, those who are ready to face the stereotypes and oppose xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices that threaten today’s societies. By promoting the ideas of openness, tolerance, and truth, the POLIN Museum contributes to the mutual understanding and respect among Poles and Jews.” -taken from information provided by the museum

The Museum is arranged in 8 galleries each corresponding to a segment of history.  The amount of information available is overwhelming.  It is completely interactive and very user friendly.  Galleries 1 and 2 are dedicated to the beginning and first encounters. According to legend when arriving in the forests they (Jewish Travelers) heard the birds singing “Polin”, the Hebrew word for “rest here”.  Each gallery tells the story of important chapters in history represented on the above timeline. 

Gallery 7 represented the Holocaust.  The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of more than 600 ghettos in occupied Poland, both in size and in population, with 450,000 Jews trapped over the course of its existence (October 1940-May 1943).  This gallery was in 3 sections and impossible to capture the emotion. The photos and displays were life-size putting you in the heart of the ghetto.

 

 

 

Outside the museum is Pomnik Bohaterow Getta or the Ghetto Hero’s Monument.  It commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is located at the spot where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.

I live in the Wola District of Warsaw.  As I walked around my neighborhood, I noticed markers on the street, signs on walls of buildings, and free-standing monuments.  I soon learned Warsaw ghetto boundary markers are memorial plaques and boundary lines that mark the maximum perimeter of the former ghetto established by Germans in 1940 in occupied Warsaw, Poland.  The markers were erected in 2008 and 2010 on 22 sites along the borders of the Jewish quarter, where from 1940-1943 stood the gates to the ghetto and a wooden footbridge over Aryan streets.

If you can read the words “Mur Getta” on the boundary marker, you are outside the wall.  If they are upside down, you are inside the ghetto.

Early in 1942 to streamline traffic in the most important part of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Germans built a wooden footbridge for the pedestrians over Aryan Chlodna Street.  Commemorating this today is a pair of metal poles connected via optical fibers which, after the sun sets, project the shape of the footbridge over the road via light.  The memorial also has viewing windows inside the poles where visitors can flip through images of life in the ghetto.

At the intersection of Chlodna and Zelazna Streets and across from the footbridge is a building, Nord Wache, which was a post of the German gendarmerie. On August 3, 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, insurgents successfully captured Nord Wache.

I love visiting cemeteries in different cities/countries.  I discovered the Jewish Cemetery was quite near my house. The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest in Europe and in the world.  The Jewish necropolis was established in 1806 and occupies 83 acres of land.  The cemetery contains over 250,000 marked graves as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Although the cemetery was closed during WWII, after the war it was re-opened and a small portion of it remains active, serving Warsaw’s existing Jewish population.  The cemetery is hauntingly beautiful.  Many of the graves have been taken back by nature. I am hoping to visit again during the winter months when there is less foliage.

Auschwitz is probably the most well-known and widely visited “concentration camp” in Poland.  Not far from Warsaw is the city of Lublin.  When reading the book “Lilac Girls” I learned of Lublin and the Majdanek Concentration and Extermination Camp which sat on its outskirts.  An easy day trip from Warsaw, I decided to pay a visit.  The camp had seven gas chambers, 2 wooden gallows, and approximately 227 structures making it one of the largest Nazi-run camps.  The camp operated from October 1, 1941, until July 22, 1944.  It was captured nearly intact because the SS had no time to destroy it due to the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army. Most of the incriminating evidence of war crimes remained.

The building and grounds are now known as The Majdanek State Museum.  It is a memorial museum and education center founded in the fall of 1944.It is devoted entirely to the memory of the atrocities committed in the network of camps during World War II and was the first of its kind in the world.  I visited the museum during one of the first days that lockdown restrictions due to the pandemic were lifted.  I had the camp nearly all to myself which created an eerie, reach down into your soul experience.  Many of the buildings are used as exhibition halls.  One building houses an exhibit called “The Shrine”. Its aim is to pay tribute to all anonymous victims of KL Lublin. It cannot be described in words, as lights flicker, music plays and voices speak in Hebrew, you are chilled to the bone. Walking through the gas chambers and the crematorium, alone, is an experience I will not soon forget.

A couple of blocks from my house is another museum.  Although it is not dedicated specifically to the plight of Jews in Warsaw, much of their history, including the Ghetto Uprising is captured. The Warsaw Uprising Museum in the Wola district of Warsaw, Poland, is dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The institution of the museum was established in 1983, but no construction work took place for many years. It opened on July 31, 2004, marking the 60th anniversary of the uprising.

The museum sponsors research into the history of the uprising, and the history and possessions of the Polish Underground State. It collects and maintains hundreds of artifacts — ranging from weapons used by the insurgents to love letters — to present a full picture of the people involved. The museum’s stated goals include the creation of an archive of historical information on the uprising and the recording of the stories and memories of living participants.

The Warsaw Uprising broke out on Tuesday, August 1, 1944, at 17:00 PM. Every year on that hour Warsaw honors the insurgents and traffic and pedestrians come to a stop and sirens blast to commemorate the victims of the Uprising.

An interactive museum that was difficult to take in during just one visit.

By the time I had been living in Warsaw for 6 months, I was hungry for more and more information especially relating 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 first 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 in northern Poland, I discovered I could stay on the grounds and explore the abandoned headquarters.

The hotel on the grounds is a restored bunker that was the living quarters for the Reich’s SS Soldiers.  I made a reservation for the first weekend in September.  To get to Wilczy Szaniec, I took a train from Warsaw to Ketrzyn and then a cab to the site.  I arrived a couple of hours before dark and got checked into the hotel.  I also discovered that I was the only guest staying that evening.  The site, which had developed as a tourist attraction after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, had closed to visitors for the day.  Since I was staying at the hotel, I could wander freely around the “Wolf’s Lair” even after hours.  I must admit it was ominous wandering around Hitler’s Headquarters and thinking about the atrocities that were planned right in this forest complex.  I was chilled walking the same paths that Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, and other high-ranking officers of the Nazi government walked.

The dusk had made the atmosphere even more sinister when I came upon Bunker 13.  Bunker 13 was the bunker that belonged to Hitler himself.  Most of the buildings are as they were left, partially destroyed, and now partially taken back by nature, so you are unable to enter them.  After walking around Bunker 13 and letting the reality of what I was seeing, cause my arm hairs to stand and my skin to goosebump, I decided to head back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep and I would be ready to walk the grounds the next day.  I woke refreshed the next morning and was ready to explore the grounds.

One of the bunkers has been restored and is now a reenactment of the assignation attempt on Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg. I spent several hours just walking and reflecting on what had taken place deep in the Masurian woods where Adolf Hitler spent more than 800 days during the war.  Interestingly, the Red Army captured the abandoned remains of Wolf’s Lair on January 27, 1945, the same day Auschwitz was liberated.  It took until 1955 to clear over 54,000 land mines that surrounded the area.  Pawel Machewicz, a Polish Historian said,

“The scars left by war should be preserved and presented as a lesson, a warning…exhibitions should explain the history, contextualize the place, but not completely overshadow it. With wartime generations dying out fast, original locations like the Wolf’s Lair, can, when their history is properly presented, help younger generations comprehend the evil of and resistance to the Nazi regime.”

In October, I visited the Polish seaside…the tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia on the Baltic Sea.  It was during this trip that I learned of Westerplatte. September 7, 1939, a peninsula in Gdansk was the site of the outbreak of WWII.  It was here the first clash between Polish and German forces took place. The invasion of Poland at Westerplatte was the first battle and thus the beginning of WWII. I took a bus from the city center of Gdansk to the Westerplatte peninsula.  The most prominent sight on the peninsula is the Pomnik Obroncow Wybrzez or Monument of the Coast Defenders which was unveiled in 1966. The entire area is now an “open-air” museum with ruins of the defender’s barracks and guardhouses.  There is also a small cemetery and a large sign that reads: Nigdy Wiecej Wojny or War: Never Again

Back in Warsaw as I was walking the neighborhood near the Polin, I saw many memorials.  Other than being tributes to the Ghetto Uprising, I could not find any information.  There were many covering several blocks.

I then came upon a small hill with steps leading up to a large “rock” with many small stones laying on it.  I learned that this is “Mila 18”.  Ulica Miła 18 (or 18 Pleasant Street in English) was the headquarters “bunker” (a hidden shelter) of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB), which was a Jewish resistance group in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II. On 8 May 1943, three weeks after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the bunker was found out by the Nazis, there were around 300 people inside.  Many surrendered, but the ŻOB command, including Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising, stood firm. The Nazis threw tear gas into the shelter to force the occupants out. Anielewicz, his girlfriend Mira Fuchrer, and many of his staff committed mass suicide by ingesting poison rather than surrender, though a few fighters who did neither managed to get out of a rear exit and later fled from the ghetto through the canals to the “Aryan side” at Prosta Street on May 10.

In 2006, an obelisk designed by Hanna Szmalenberg and Marek Moderau was added to the memorial. The inscription in Polish, English, and Yiddish reads: “Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising built from the rubble of Miła Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw. These ruins of the bunker at 18 Miła Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, as well as some civilians.

This is just a brief look at what I have discovered in Warsaw and my travels around Poland.  I truly commend the people of this country for their preservation and respect of history.  Below, I am adding a link to a PowerPoint presentation I put together if anyone is interested in a bit more detail and more photos.

https://1drv.ms/p/s!Av5g3LPGao_JhMloftiFVL7m-Z9xZw?e=qlG61e

 

 

Uniquely Warsaw

Uniquely Warsaw

The first time I came to Warsaw was October 31, 2014.  I was living in Paris and a friend from the states was in Poland.  We were to meet up in Warsaw, this friend will remain unnamed as the meet-up didn’t take place…what can I say…shit happens.  I arrived in Warsaw and he ended up somewhere in the mountainous region of Poland training for a fight.  I didn’t let this little hiccup spoil my trip.  I have no idea where I stayed, other than it was on the outskirts of Warsaw.  I took a bus from near my hotel and remember getting off and seeing the Palace of Culture and Nature. 

Palace of Culture and Nature

It was cold, grey and gloomy…the city looked as I expected an Eastern European city to look.  Now that I look back on that, and I remember thinking that exact phrase about Eastern Europe, it sounds pretty, I don’t know, prejudice.  So, I ask you, do you have a preconceived idea of an eastern European country/city?  If you do, as I did, let me tell you my first impressions of Warsaw were totally wrong.  Also, Poland considers itself Central Europe, not Eastern. Not that I didn’t enjoy the 3 days I spent here, but Warsaw has so much more to offer than Old Town, the Chopin Museum, the Palace of Culture and Nature and whatever else touristic I did during that trip.  Don’t get me wrong, Old Town is amazing and even now I probably go there almost once a week.  The Uprising Museum is a must see along with the Vodka Museum and the Royal Castle, Wilanow Palace, Lazienki Park, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens.  I have visited all of those, but I also like to find the unusual things to do.  Of course, this isn’t always possible when you are under the time constraints of a holiday/vacation.  Living in Warsaw, I have been able to seek out the unusual.  So, with no further ado, here are some extraordinary things to do in Warsaw should you have the time. A couple only take a few minutes while others a few hours. 

Kilometer Zero

Kilometer Zero – During my travels, I have discovered that many capital cities have a marker designating kilometer zero.  This is a point from which distances are traditionally measured.  One such marker, “Milliarum Aureum (Golden Milestone) of the Roman Empire is believed to be the literal origin of “all roads lead to Rome”.  I have been to kilometer zero in Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow so I needed to add Warsaw to the list.  The kilometer zero in Warsaw is bigger than most and is more of a monument than a marker.  It is found on the intersection of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Marszalkowska streets next to the Centrum Warsaw Metro station.

 

Stacja Muzeum – When you have a friend who worked for the railroad and loves trains that he has a miniature set up in his basement, you seek out interesting things about trains.  When he also happens to be Polish, The Railway Museum in Warsaw, also known as Stacja Muzeum is a must.  My flat is next to the Warsaw Spire (currently the 2nd tallest building in Warsaw) and I discovered the Stacja Muzeum was a mere 10 to 15 minute walk from my flat.  It is located in the former Warsaw Glowna PkP Station. 

The collection includes historic rolling stock displayed on the tracks outside the museum, including one of the few remaining armoured railway trains in Europe. Inside the museum are several rooms filled with memorabilia, miniature train setups, a display of old uniforms and even a library that houses books on the Polish Railways.  If you happen to stop in on a Monday (which by chance, I did) the normal entrance fee of 12 pln ($3.25) is waived.  If you have any interest in trains or the railroad, it is well worth a couple hours of your time. As a side note to the Stacja Muzeum in Warsaw, about 70 km (40 minutes by train from Warsaw Central Station) is the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum in Sochaczew.  This museum also has both indoor and outdoor displays. The entrance fee is 12 pln or 35 pln for a family with 2 adults and up to 3 children.  Entrance is free on Wednesdays.  The unique thing about this museum is they offer a retro train on Thursdays- Sunday during the months of June through October.  The 1.5 hour train ride takes you from the museum to the Kampinos Forest. 

Here you can enjoy a picnic and grill your own sausages over a campfire or purchase sausages from the campgrounds.  You will spend several hours in the forest and the museum organizes a scavenger hunt for the kids and they can also wade in the creek.  My experience was fabulous.  I think I was the only solo non-polish speaking person on the trip.  The people and families on the excursion were so kind.  Offering to share their picnic with me and doing their best to make me feel welcome in their country.

Mur Getta – “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw”; was the largest of all the Nazi ghettos during World War II. It was established by the German authorities in November 1940.  At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there, in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. From the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps and mass-killing centers. In the summer of 1942 at least 254,000 Ghetto residents were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp during Großaktion Warschau under the guise of “resettlement in the East” over the course of the summer. The ghetto was demolished by the Germans in May 1943 after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings which had temporarily halted the deportations. The total death toll among the prisoners of the Ghetto is estimated to be at least 300,000 killed by bullet or gas,[8] combined with 92,000 victims of starvation and related diseases, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the casualties of the final destruction of the Ghetto. (Wikipedia)

I currently live in the WOLA district of Warsaw, much of which was part of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Fragments of the ghetto walls (mur getta) are fragments of the walls between properties or the walls of pre-war buildings marking the border between the Warsaw Ghetto and the “Aryan” part of the city.  These fragments along with memorials can be found throughout my neighborhood.  I believe there are over 20 memorials throughout the former ghetto area.  The memorials show the outline of the former ghetto which in 1940 had a total length of about 18km.  There is also 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.  It is interesting, but also sad and emotional to look for the different memorials and remnants of the wall. I do commend the people of not only Warsaw but the country of Poland for the way they have preserved their horrible history and continue to pay tribute to those that lost their lives during  WW2 not only in the ghetto.

Neon Museum – located in the Praga district of Warsaw, this is totally off the beaten path.  The Praga District has/had a bad reputation.  Described as edgy and dangerous (I feel very safe in Warsaw) it is on the “wrong side of the river” and usually considered “off-limits” to tourists.  What I have discovered it the Praga District is undergoing a revitalization.  I have spent some time walking around the streets, visiting some churches, enjoying the street art and touring the Vodka Museum which is in the area.  I also happened to discover the Neon Museum. 

The Neon Museum is dedicated to the documentation and the preservation of Cold War era neon signs and electro-graphic design.

A small museum in an old warehouse type building it is worth a trip to the “wrong side of the river”.  The museum houses a couple hundred signs, there is a short video to watch and a small gift shop. Several new cafes and restaurants are in the neighborhood and it is a short walk to the Vodka Museum.

http://www.neonmuzeum.org/brief-history

U Fukiera – I don’t really know all the details as what it means to be a “Michelin Restaurant” other than if it is 3 stars it is excellent and probably out of my price range.  As I was strolling through Old Town one day, I noticed a doorway that exquisitely decorated and took a closer look.  I saw a sign above the door That said Michelin 2019.  I didn’t see any stars, but I figured it still had to be pretty good.

As I perused the menu that outside, the menu and wine list were indeed impressive. Having just arrived in Warsaw and at this point without a job, it wasn’t in my budget for a meal.  A few months later, the weather had broke, it was a lovely spring day and I again passed U Fukiera.  There was a small sign outside that said 3 course meal for 35 pl or about $9.25…what a deal.  They offer this Monday – Friday during the lunch hour. Of course by now I’m working, but this seemed too good to pass up.

U Fukiera is one of the oldest restaurants in Warsaw. Dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, Grzegorz Korab built a townhouse in Warsaw market square.  He opened a wine store in its cellars.  The Fukier family became owners in the early eighteenth century and over the years put aside the oldest and best wines.  By the nineteenth century, it had become a collection of the oldest wines in the world.  This came to an end in 1939 when Nazi occupiers stripped it’s cellars.  After the war, the “U Fukiera” house was one of the first to be rebuilt.  So if you would like a delicious Polish meal in one of the oldest establishments in Warsaw check out U Fukiera.  Also, you can’t beat their weekly lunch specials.

https://www.ufukiera.pl/en/ufukiera_home

Old Town Wishing Bell – As long as you are in Old Town, a bit hidden and off the beaten path you can find a large bronze bell cast in 1646.  A much-overlooked relic from the seventeenth century it is a key feature in a fairytale with a tragic ending. You can read about it here at atlas obscura.  The bell is located behind St. John’s Cathedral in Canon Square.  Also, according to local lore, if you circle the bell while making a wish it will come true.

Mermaids of Warsaw – Her name is Syrenka, which means siren or mermaid.  She is armed with a shield and a sword. Her life mission is to protect the city of Warsaw.  Legend says Syrenka has a twin sister and they lived in the Baltic Sea.  Her sister made her way to Denmark (the famous little mermaid of Copenhagen) and Syrenka swam the Vistula River and ended up in Warsaw’s Old Town. 

Although she was meddlesome and freed the catch of fisherman, once they saw her and heard her song they fell in love.  She was then captured by a rich merchant who wanted her as a prize.  The fishermen rescued her from the greedy man’s clutches.  She was so thankful that she promised to protect the fisherman and their families.  That is how she became the guardian of the city. 

The Warsaw coat of arms is a mermaid and her image can be found throughout the city, so keep your eyes open.  The most famous is the statue in Old Town on market square.  Another statue is on the banks of the Vistula River and one on the bridge of the Stanislaw Markiewicz Viaduct.  Whenever you are in Warsaw, keep your eyes open for mermaid sightings.

Cmentarz Żydowski (Jewish Cemetery) – Established in 1806 and covering 83 acres, the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe. There are 250,000 marked graves in the cemetery, along with mass graves of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.  In 1914, the Jewish population of Warsaw numbered over 330,000.  After WWII in 1946 this number was a mere 18,000.  The cemetery is one of the few remaining pieces of material heritage of the Jewish people left in Poland.

 Unlike other cemeteries in Europe, al the graves have their backs to the cemetery gate.  This was because in 1819, a community member was buried with his head rather than feet facing the cemetery gate. To avoid embarrassment, the first Chief Rabbi of Warsaw ordered all future burials should be this way. The cemetery closed during WWII and was partly demolished. German forces used it for mass executions and the burial of victims of Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and other mass murders.  It re-opened after the war but sadly was left to nature.  There are currently about 20-30 new burials a year, but the cemetery looks mostly abandoned even though some renovation was started on the badly neglected cemetery by the Nissenbaum Foundation in the 1990’s.  If you have any interest in cemeteries or Jewish history, it is well worth the 10 pln or about $2.65 entrance fee to wander around. 

 

Street Art and the Tibetan Gallery – One of the first things I noticed in Warsaw was the street art.  I’m not talking about graffiti, although the graffiti is interesting too, but the art that takes up entire sides of buildings.  There are even art walks available on the weekends.  Of course, the one I decide to take ends up being mostly in my neighborhood.  Why did I choose this one?  Well, I read the description incorrectly and they have different walks depending on the season.  I didn’t pay attention to the dates and thought I was gong on an art walk in the Praga District, but no, it was WOLA, my hood.  There is an app called In Your Pocket, not only for Warsaw, but most major cities around the world.  You can access the street art guide using this app. 

I daily pass buildings covered in murals, but one day taking the bus to Blue City Shopping Center, I noticed an overpass that had several murals painted on the concrete stanchions. Taking this bus route several times, I noticed a mural of the Dalai Lama.  My interest was piqued.  I decided to walk the 2.5 km from my flat and check it out.  I discovered an entire gallery dedicated to depicting the Tibetan struggle for autonomy from Beijing.  There are currently about 30 murals in the collection which was inspired by the Warsaw Council’s decision to award honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama in 2009.  If you find yourself wandering around Warsaw, keep your eyes open for unexpected street art.

 

Night Market – If you are a food lover like me and find yourself in Warsaw anytime June – October make your way to the Train Station Museum (yes, the one I talked about earlier) on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after 5pm.  Why?  Because on the old platforms of the former train station you will find a foodie paradise.  Started about 5 years ago, neon lights and music welcome you kiosks, booths and food and beverage trucks with everything from Polish, to Vietnamese, Brazilian to Italian and everything in between.  Every type of cuisine you can think of and they often change throughout the season.  There is a craft beer truck and a wine kiosk where you can sample wines from around the world including a nice selection of Polish wines.  Sometimes there is a DJ, sometimes live music, sometimes you can even get a touchup at the pop-up barber and after a few cocktails you may even visit the tattoo kiosk.  A fun atmosphere for families too!

Warsaw Palm Tree – The first time taking the tram down Aleje Jerozolimskie, I did a double-take and thought I was seeing things.  There was a palm tree in the middle of the street.  No, I wasn’t seeing things and no, it isn’t real.  I later learned that Aleje Jerozolimskie translates to Jerusalem Avenue and the sculpture is the work of Joanna Rajkowska.  After a trip to Israel, she was inspired to bring some of the country’s sunny atmosphere back to Warsaw.  Adding to the significance is that Jerusalem Avenue was the site of a Jewish settlement in the 18th century. 

Interaktywne Muzeum Flipperow or Interactive Museum of Pinball  “Pinball Station” – Searching for something to do one day, I came across a story about a pinball museum.  It ended up being walking distance from my flat so one afternoon I headed out to check it out.  For someone who was never really into pinball, I ended up spending 4 hours.  Once you pay your 40 pln entry fee, about $10 and get your wristband, you can stay as long as you want and even come and ago until the 10pm weeknights and midnight on weekends closing time.  The machines are set up for free play.  The museum was established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists and collectors.  They started with about 30 games and now the collection has grown to over 100 of which 60 have been restored and available for play.  They even have a machine from 1933 which was left in Warsaw by the Germans after the war.  It is called Bord-Golf and you can even try your skill.  They even have beer, soda and water for purchase.  So, grab a group of friends and spend a retro evening at the Pinball Station.

There you have it…a few surprises in Warsaw if you find yourself in the city with some extra time.  I always knew I would like living in Warsaw, but somehow it manages to surprise me every day. 

 

 

Where in the World ~ My Top Ten List

Where in the World ~ My Top Ten List

Note to self:  when in shelter-at-home, do not, I repeat, do not leave your cell phone plugged into the charger 23 out of 24 hours in a day!!  Why?  Because just maybe your battery will overheat, expand, and cause your phone case to separate.  Then you must purchase a new phone, which isn’t always a bad thing, but one I hadn’t planned on.  So, I purchased a new phone, now I had to sync the phones.  Do I really want to transfer all 22,000+ photos to my new phone?  Not only that, but in the process, I discovered that not only had I backed up to OneDrive and Xiaomi Cloud, but also to Google Plus.  Well, I haven’t seen some of these pictures in years.  Do you know how many hours you can waste looking at old photos?  Let me just say, it is a good thing we were on lockdown because I don’t want to admit the amount of time spent.  What wonderful travel memories they brought back.  Having been to 37 countries, I started thinking about my favorite places I have visited and made a top ten list.  Looking at my top ten list it included countries, cities, places, and moments. I didn’t think it was a particularly good list combining whole countries with cities and some places. Then, I realized that my list mostly comes down to the memories or moments that were made in these countries, cities, and places.  Where in the world are my top ten?  I couldn’t decide on a definite number one.  Of 2 places, which many of you can guess, Paris and Bali are neck and neck.  I have started saying, “Paris is my heart and Bali is my soul”.  Starting with Paris, since I am currently in Europe, followed by Bali and then the rest of my list in no certain order, I’ll tell you why they are on my list.

Ahhhh, Paris the city that stole my heart.  They (who the hell are “they”? But you know what I mean) say you never forget your first time in Paris.  My first time began like this… “It was our first evening in Paris. Night was falling as we entered the metro.  Rain was in the forecast, so I had our umbrella.  We were headed to a wine taste.  A light drizzle met us as we exited the metro station.  The sounds of the city and the glow of the streetlamps surrounded us.  As we tried to get our bearings, he spotted a street vendor selling cre51499486_941665969369719_5981130164594016256_npes.  Huddled under our umbrella, sharing a warm crepe… Paris in the rain…I was in love.  Was I in love with the city, the man, or the moment?  Probably, all three. 

As cliché as it is, from “Midnight in Paris”, there is something about Paris in the rain and you never do forget your first visit to Paris.  Many more trips to Paris and a short time living there, Paris and more specifically, Montmartre, has my heart.  You can read more about my love affair with Paris here.

Bali you are my soul.  It is interesting while living in China, I learned the Chinese word for Paris is Bālí.  Also, while living in Paris, I met a girl at a café. She told me about her dream of moving to Bali.  I promised if she made the move, I would come to visit.  It seems these 2 worlds were destined to collide.  She moved from Paris to Bali and I planned a trip.  Arriving in Bali, I spent several days in Ubud, more specifically Peliatan, before going to visit my friend.  I found a random homestay with a local family and my soul was stolen.  They included me in their Balinese traditions, took me to special places on the island, and even took me to a Balinese wedding.

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Their friend, Made, drove me 2 hours to take one photo at the now Instagram famous, Lempuyang, or the Gate to Heaven.  Before leaving Peliatan, they asked me to return in a few months for a special ceremony that takes place once every 3 years in their community, a Ngaben or Cremation Ceremony.  Ketut’s mother would be cremated and I would join the family in the celebration of her life and the ceremony sending her to the next life. Those few short days I spent with them learning about Balinese culture and traditions, I knew I would return. I did return that August for the cremation.  I spent 8 days going to Temple and experiencing the Hindu religion firsthand.  I was with the family at 2 am when we exhumed the body for cremation.  Each day sucked me in deeper and I knew my next visit would be for an extended period.  When I arrived back in Bali July of 2019, it would be for 4 months.  I again stayed at Kenari House which I consider my Balinese home.  I also spent 6 weeks volunteering at a Balinese school for special needs children.  Although I feel at home in most places I visit or live, I cannot explain the way I feel in Bali.  I feel as if I was meant to be there.  I’m thankful my worlds collided.

Currently living in Warsaw, Poland, I plan to return to Paris as soon as possible after coronavirus restrictions open Europe to travel.  After my time in Poland is up and no, I don’t know when that will be, I plan to return to Bali for another extended period. I need to keep my heart and soul in balance. “Om Santih, Santih, Santih, Om”, I wish you peace in body, speech and mind…until we meet again. You can read more about my Bali life here.

No certain order, the rest of the list…

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Lake Placid, New York…this may seem like a strange choice, but it is a place where my adult life revisited a trip of my childhood.  We were taking about 2.5 weeks and traveling from Warren, Ohio through Pittsburgh on to Philadelphia, New York, Boston through a small town in Vermont, and a visit to Lake Placid before heading back to Ohio.  This was a great road trip, but 2 things stuck with me. First, visiting friends in a small town outside Burlington, Vermont, I experienced darkness, as in nighttime, like I have never seen.  It recalled the Eagles song, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” talking about a billion stars in the sky.  It really seemed like there were a billion stars in the sky, but what stood out, even more, was the silence.  The only way I can explain it is that the silence was deafening.  The deafening silence and a billion stars made for a night I will never forget, but on to Lake Placid.  I was probably 10 years old the first time I visited Lake Placid with my parents and younger brother.  I remember being fascinated by “snow” in the summer (homemade but put out on the streets as an attraction).  We hiked up Whiteface Mountain and took obligatory elevation photo.  Revisiting as an adult brought back all the memories.  The “snow” in the summer was still on the street and we made the hike up so I could recreate the obligatory photo at elevation 4867 ft.  It is great recreating memories of your childhood, but even better when you can make new ones at the same time.  It had started to drizzle (can you tell I love rain?).  When we came down the mountain, we stopped at a bar that was doing prime rib outside on a grill…the aroma overtook us and soon we were sharing a bottle of pinot grigio and eating prime rib sandwiches before returning to our hotel on Mirror Lake and our hot tub.  I can’t explain why certain trips, when you have taken 100’s, are embedded in your heart, soul, and mind, but this was one of them, so it makes my top ten list.

Talk about seeing a billion stars in the sky…Majorca/Mallorca, Spain, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean where we spent nearly 3 weeks. Palma, the Island’s capital is known for its beaches and is a popular tourist destination for Europeans.

We stayed in a small village across the island called Fornalutx.  No cars could get into the village, so you had to park on the outskirts.  It was a village of stone streets and stairs.  Our home for the visit was a 400-year-old stone house.  Our bedroom was open-air room on the top of the house and was the “drying room”.  Fornalutux was tucked in a valley and we didn’t see the sun between the mountains until almost 10 am.  We would then wander to the center of the village and sip our café con leche and watch the locals go about their business.  We took day trips around the island visiting Valldemossa where Chopin met George Sands and they became lovers.  My worlds often seem to collide, as I am now living in Chopin’s home country of Poland but visited his home in Mallorca.  After Chopin and Sands’s visit, the locals fearing tuberculosis burned most of the furniture and rooms as Chopin had been ill with “a cold”.  The museum in Valldemossa has letters, manuscripts, his Majorcan piano as well as Chopin’s death mask and a lock of his hair.  We often walked to the nearby village of Soller and caught the tram to the bowl-shaped Port de Soller where we sipped sangria on the sea.  Cala Deia became a favorite spot.  We had to hike down a small trail to the sea.  We lunched on cheese, olives, bread, and wine and then swam naked in the sea.  We visited Banyalbutar and Cap de Formentor where we drove and finally had to hike the rest of the way up to the remains of a medieval fortress.  But by far, the most memorable night was on the outskirts of Fornalutx.  Restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 9pm.  We bought a giant pan of paella grabbed some box wine and headed up the mountain.  Spread our blankets, ate paella, got drunk on wine, and lay and looked at the billion stars in the sky until near daybreak.

As long as my head is in the stars, we may as well go to “the rooftop of the world”….Tibet! Since I have been a young girl, I have had a dream of meeting the Dalai Lama and seeing Tibet.  Now I realize the Dalai Lama is in India and not Tibet, but when you live in China, you can at least realize the Tibet portion of your dream.  While living in Hunan Provence, I decided this would be the best time to go to Tibet.  Thank goodness I did a little research before I just jumped on a train to Lhasa.  An individual cannot enter and tour Tibet independently.  You must book a tour through a registered Tibetan Tour Operator.  Not being one that usually does tours, I had no choice and found one that had an itinerary that matched my wish list.  2 things were important to me, first, an overnight on Mount Everest Base Camp and second, I wanted to end up in Kathmandu, Nepal.  These criteria being met, I left Changning in Hunan Province where I had been living and working and headed to Guangzhou for a sort 3-day holiday before the long haul to Tibet.  I chose to travel by train as I read that it is easier to acclimatize to the altitude by train versus flying to Lhasa.  I boarded the train in Guangzhou for a 9-hour train ride to Chongqing.  This is where the trains to Tibet start in this part of China.  I decided to spend one night in Chongqing because the next leg of my journey would be 44 hours on a sleeper train, slowly climbing to nearly 5000 meters ( 16,404 ft) in the mountains before descending to 3,656 ( 11,900 ft) the altitude of Lhasa.  The berths were equipped with oxygen and as we ascended, oxygen was automatically pumped in.  Honestly, the trip was not that bad, and I would probably do it again should the opportunity present itself.  Arriving in Lhasa, the train is met by armed guards to which you much show your passport, China visa, and Tibet travel permit.  Then you are escorted to immigration and met by your tour guide.  I had arrived 2 days before our official tour began so I could have some independent time in Lhasa.  Although nearly everyone had cell phones and homes had satellite dishes, I felt like I was in the land that time forgot.  I wandered around Lhasa.  I saw the Potala Palace, monasteries, temples, and even met some locals. Before I knew it, it was time to start the official tour.  I soon met the 9 other people I would be spending the next week with. I’m not going to get into the whole once in a lifetime trip but just tell you about the defining moment that will forever stick with me.  I will say, there was a bond created between our group that was amazing and I’m happy to say has led to friendships to this day.  The defining moment for me was base camp Mount Everest or Qomolangma as it is known in Tibetan.

We arrived just before sunset.  Sadly, the peak of the mighty mountain was under cloud cover.  We got settled in our tent, I was rooming with George and Phillipe, who I had become quite close with during our time together and a French couple who had also hung out with us during most of the trip.  It was nice being just the 5 of us in our tent.  We were still getting settled in when we heard a bit of a ruckus outside.  Dropping everything we went to see what was causing the commotion.  I got outside and everyone was looking toward the peak of Everest.  The skies had opened, and we witnessed the sun setting on that magnificent summit that has claimed the lives of so many, so many who are still buried in her breast.  All I could do was look to the sky and cry.  I turned to George and Phillipe and we all knew we were witnessing something amazing. The peak of Mount Everest, a glowing orange triangle bathed in the setting sun.  They gave me a squeeze and we just stared in silence.  I don’t think I will ever forget how I felt at that moment in time.  Later, early morning, maybe about 4am I woke and stepped out of our warm tent into the brisk air and could not believe I was here on the mighty mountain.  I was once again filled with awe as I stared up at the shining moon amongst what looked like a billion stars.  If you don’t believe in God or a higher being, you might start here.  You can read my Mount Everest story here.

Where to next?  How about Vietnam.  So far, all my choices have had kind of an Ah-Ha moment that defines them.  I can’t say that I have an ah-ha moment for Vietnam.  I just know I am drawn to the entire country, its people, its beauty, its cuisine.  I’ve only been to Vietnam 4 times, but each experience has been amazing.  My first visit was only to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City.  The second time was HCMC and the outlying areas. The third, I started in Hanoi and traveled north to the border of China, stopping in very rural homestays in villages of 400 people with livestock living under the stilted homes.  The last time I was there, I spent 3 weeks and traveled from HCMC to HoiAn.  I kind of fell in love with HoiAn.   Of course, HoiAn is charming on its own, but I meet a young girl who had a homestay next to the one I was in.  I wandered over one evening for dinner as they also had a bar/restaurant. I was the only one there and Sen chatted most of the evening with me telling me about her family.  Her father had made all the furniture for the homestay out of bamboo and by hand.  He also fished the river from early morning until near sunset. Before I left to return to my homestay for the evening, she invited me to take a tour on the river the following evening.  She said her father would take us.  I didn’t want to impose on her father, but she was insistent and the next afternoon, I found myself climbing into a small wooden riverboat at sunset. Even after working/fishing the river and then selling his catch at the market, Sen’s father proudly and happily toured me up and down the river for well over an hour.  Sen and I keep contact and I hope to see her and her family again sometime in the future.  How can I talk about Vietnam and not mention my addiction, my crack…PHO.  I discovered it on my first trip but became a bit more addicted to every visit and I think I ate it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY during my last visit.  Living now in Warsaw, I found a Pho Shop and eat it at least a couple times a week.  As much as I love my pho, it is truly the people you meet along the way that create the moments/memories you take with you.

 

In China, there are 2 holidays that are extended holidays, Chinese New Year, and Mid-Autumn Festival.  Living in China makes for easy travel around SE Asia.  I decided to take advantage of this, one year during Mid-Autumn Festival and tick a bucket list item…Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Having just been back in the states, I mentioned my whirlwind plans to travel from Thailand to Cambodia and finally Vietnam.  People often tell you they want to join you on your travels, but few do.  This time, I had a friend from the states meet me in Bangkok and we toured Angkor Wat together.

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I chose a rural village outside of Siem Reap for our accommodations.  It was definitely rural, and we had also arrived during the rainy season.  So rainy, the local children were swimming in the ditches which had also turned the road into a giant pond.  The rain, however, changed my plans of watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but it didn’t deter us from visiting the temple site.

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Our host arranged a tuk-tuk to pick us up and escort us to the site.  He called his tuk-tuk our BMW.  We did have to wade up the road in knee-deep water, which the children were swimming in, to arrive at our “BMW”.  90 degrees and humid we started out in the earlyish morning to the “city of temples”, Angkor.  Angkor Wat was built during the Khmer Empire at the beginning of the 12th century.  It is a UNESCO Heritage Site and the largest religious monument in the world. Originally a Hindu complex built for Vishnu, it later became Buddhist and went back and forth for centuries.  It is now predominantly Buddhist and you can bump into monks around the complex.  We also visited Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (used in the film Tomb Raiders), but Angkor Wat was awe-inspiring.  I guess maybe I am drawn to Eastern religions, but places like this I feel in my soul.  During the Cambodian Civil War in the 70s, the temple did not sustain much damage aside from the visible bullet holes you see today.  Although I have seen the movie “The Killing Fields”, I had forgotten what horrors took place on Cambodian soil.  Under the Khmer Rouge Regime (1975-1979) which took over after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975), it is believed that 1.7 -2.5 million people out of a 1975 population of 8 million were killed and buried in what is now known as Cambodian Genocide. The experience of seeing Angkor Wat did not disappoint and easily makes my top 10 list.

 

 

The Western world commonly associates “Transylvania” with vampires thanks to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Transylvania is a region in central Romania known for medieval towns, mountains, and castles. It was also the birthplace of my significant other at the time, Tom’s grandparents.  Since we were already going to Europe for a transatlantic cruise, we decided to spend a week pre-cruise and tour Transylvania.  Right from the start, I should have known this would be a trip to remember.  Flying out of New York, through Paris and on to Bucharest, we checked our luggage together, but upon arrival in Bucharest, my luggage was left in Paris.  Our travels were looping us from Bucharest through Sibiu, Sebes, Sinaia, Sighisoara, Vinerea, Miklosvar, Brasov, and back to Bucharest.  My luggage didn’t make it to Bucharest before we were scheduled to leave, they would send it to Sebes which had a small airport and I could pick it up there.  Long story short, that never happened and I traveled Romania for 8 days with what I had in my carry-on, some of Tom’s t-shirts and the 1 shirt Air France provided me.  In Sibiu and Sebes, we wandered the streets, visited cemeteries, and ate the local food.  In Sinaia, we visited the German neo-renaissance Peles Castle which is now a museum.  Sighisoara, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of Vlad III the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula.

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In Miklosvar we stayed in a guest house of Count Tibor Kalnoky dating back to the 1800s and furnished with local antiques.  We visited the city of Brasov which consists of 5 villages, one being Bran.  Bran is home to Bran Castle.  Because Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle.  These were all wonderful experiences, but the one that stands out the most (well other than the 2 times Tom got pulled over by the Police…thankfully with the name Craciun we somehow worked our way out of the situations) is the visit to Vinerea.

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When we arrived in Vinerea, it was truly going back in time.  Families were traveling by horse and cart and the village was just getting running water to the homes.  Up until then, everyone had a well for their needs.  Of course, no one spoke English and Tom knew like 3 words in Romanian, but after showing them his name was Craciun (which means Christmas and is a somewhat common name) someone ran off to the school and brought back one of the teachers who spoke basic English.  We had an address that we hoped was the home of Tom’s grandfather.  Laura, from the school, led us to the home of Ana and Maria.  When they answered the door and Laura explained who we were their faces lit up and they took Tom by the arm and led him to 2 photos which they excitedly dusted off.   One was a photo that Tom’s parents had taken when they visited in the 60s (?) and the other was a photo of Tom’s grandfather.  We had indeed found his home and these ladies were Tom’s cousins. It was a very emotional visit with a few tears being shed.  They invited us to stay but we could only spend the day.  We did share some homemade wine they were making from the grapes they grew.  Even though it wasn’t my relatives, it easily makes my top ten list.  I received a message from Laura after Tom passed from coronavirus and it brought back all the memories of our time in Transylvania.

 

8 down and 2 to go…Xiashan, China a rural village not even on a map.  My first “home” in China and the place that is nearest and dearest to my heart.  I really didn’t know what to expect when I decided to move to China to teach English.  I knew I wanted to stand on the Great Wall.  I knew I wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors.  I knew I wanted to visit Tibet.  What I didn’t know was that a 6-month stint would turn into 4 years and that small village of Xiashan would be the reason.  When I first arrived in China, I spent 2 weeks in Beijing for training.  During those 2 weeks, I ticked my first bucket list item when we visited the GWC….a magnificent experience!  Along with training for teaching English, we had classes on Chinese culture and traditions, including some basic Mandarin.  We even had tai chi lessons and a dumpling-making class.  At the end of the 2 weeks, I boarded a train along with 2 others who would also be going to Xiashan.  The train took us as far as Weifang and then a car took us to Xiashan about 1 hour away.  We arrived in the evening, after being treated to a fabulous dinner, we were taken to our apartment and settled in.  Waking the next morning, we were met by a representative for the school who would also be our liaison.  Alina took us to get something to eat, took us to the school, and showed us around the village…at least we had a nice supermarket. We learned we were an hour and 20 minutes by bus from Weifang which is a fairly large city.  We really were in the middle of nowhere.  During these next 5.5 months, I fell in love with Xiashan.  I loved going to the local market, even if they did slaughter the sheep right on the street or kill the chicken for your dinner right outside the restaurant.  Other than a few trips to Weifang, I only left Xiashan once to travel to Inner Mongolia and the Gobi Desert during Mid-Autumn Festival or Golden Week.  I didn’t realize how much I loved my life in the village until my contract was over.  I wanted to stay on, but my visa was only good for 6 months and I had to return to the USA if I wanted to get another Visa, which I did.  Sadly, by the time I would return, they would have had to replace me.  Thankfully, they let me keep my things at my apartment until I could return and move to the next teaching assignment in Hunan Provence.  I would return just as Chinese New Year was kicking off.  Alina excitedly invited me to her family’s home in the countryside, an even smaller village than Xiashan.  I would stay at their home and eat a traditional Chinese New Year Dinner.  This ended up being one of my most memorable experiences during my time in China. CNY fell at the beginning of February and it is quite cold this time of year in this part of China.  Alina picked me up by scooter and it took about 20 minutes to get to her simple home.  When I say simple, it is because their home had no running water.

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Thermos with the hot water and our washbasin

Her mother got water from a well/pump.  She boiled the water over a coal-fueled “stove”.  She filled several thermos bottles with the hot water.  This water would be used for tea and washing.  In the morning she would prepare a washbasin with hot water for Alina and me to bathe.  The main room of the house served as an eating area and also where her parents slept.

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For boiling water, cooking and heating

They slept on a concrete slab that was heated by a small coal “furnace” from which a pipe ran through the wall and under their bed heating the concrete.  On top of this were mats were they not only slept, but we gathered to watch television. Yes, they had electricity and satellite.  A couch and a table and chairs were also in this room as it was the warmest in the house.  Alina and I shared a bed in her room with plenty of quilts to keep us warm through the night.  So, I am 50+ at this point in my life.  Sometimes nature calls in the night.  With no indoor plumbing, I had to get up, find my shoes, and find my way outside to a concrete wall, behind which was a hole in the ground to do our business.  After you finished, you had to get water from the barrel and flush the “toilet”.  The paper goes in a bin, never ever flush TP in China.  The morning of Chinese New Year, we woke, and after we bathed, her mom had made baozi for our breakfast.  These are the most delicious pork filled steamed buns you will ever eat.  She then told Alina to take me and show me around the village as she was making the preparations for our feast.  What a feast it was.  Her brother came home and that evening we watched the festivities on TV and feasted on more food than you can imagine.  At midnight there were firecrackers and we ate dumplings.  Other than Alina, her family spoke no English, but we spent the evening laughing, smiling, eating, and celebrating.  A defining moment in my China Life.  An experience I will never forget!  A family who did not know me had never seen a foreigner (a first for her parents), and lived a simple life was proud to share their home, their life, their traditions, and their culture with me.

 

 

Finally….if you have made it this far, I commend you.  Maybe I should have chosen my top 5, but I don’t know if I could have made the cut at 5.  I can’t talk about places that have shaped my life without listing my hometown in my top ten list…Warren, Ohio.  Why?  Warren, Ohio helped make me and shape me into the person I am today.  Not only my family but friends and most importantly the teachers I had in Warren City Schools.  I grew up on a small dead-end street that most people never heard of with my parents, an aunt who lived with us, and a younger brother, Mark.  I’ve traveled to 37 countries and seen more than most people in a lifetime, but that younger brother gave me the most amazing moment of my life on January 9, 2020.

My parents and aunt gave me not only love and values, but they gave me wings to fly.  I played little league and learned to bowl. We had a tree fort and always had friends sleeping over.  A neighborhood where we were all family.  From showing movies on a building at the end of the street to riding bikes and catching lightning bugs…moments…moments of my life.  I get angry when people put down Warren, Ohio.  As many times as I say the “world is my home”, Warren is my hometown and I am proud of it.  There are too many people who have touched my life and supported my journey to name everyone.  The friends who open their homes to me when I blow into town for a few short days.  The ones who pick me up at the airport and come bearing Sunrise Pizza.  The ones who send me off with care packages.  The ones who have a special gathering to welcome me back for the time being.  The ones who laugh because I do something stupid and must cancel dinner plans.  The ones who day drink because I’m on holiday. The new friends I just met on my last trip home made me feel like I have known them for a lifetime.  The teachers who gave me a love of geography, history, and English which pushed me to experience this wonderful world first-hand.  It really is the people you meet along the way…..thank you all for following my journey, for your support and most of all your love.  I remain Warren Proud!

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