Monday, August 18, 2008

I should say

I'm really glad I came to Prague. Overall, it's been a worthwhile cultural experience, and I'm grateful for the time here. It's just not really the wonder I thought I was getting. And compared to Poland it's a slap in the face. So remember that.

Also, our hotel has a bidet, and that goes in the plus column.

Everyone says you have to visit Prague

But not me. In fact, I don't think I'll ever come back.

This city couldn't be unfriendlier. Finding the metro takes a good archaeological sense of direction. The train station is hidden underground, with signs in German directing you where to go. And the complete dearth of taxis is perhaps explained by the thievery of which most guidebooks warn you. All of which make for one of the longest and most difficult arrivals of my life.

Granted, a day and a half later, I've now seen some taxis, and I think the city is really easy to get around my metro and tram.

But that's not to mention the restaurants. We paid, for example, $12 for three diminutive rolls and two pats of butter that we didn't order. Thing was, the city had tired us out so much by the time we made it to the restaurant that we didn't have the wits to argue the bill. To make it worse, the food was terrible. I chewed my way through the toughest lamb-leg fat I've ever encountered (and the lamb was, apparently, all fat), and the potato coins were just vomitable.

And there's nothing more classless than when the waitress tells you that you should pay a 10 percent tip.

If you want to know, I'm doing my vindictive best to spread the nasty truth about Prague to everyone I can. I just read a magazine article about the declining tourist industry. Is it, perhaps, maybe, just maybe, high prices for abysmal service? The city says, "No! Tourism is booming," despite government statistics to the contrary. But a smooth-talking PR spokesperson shouldn't be able to cover the truth, so I want to stick it back to Prague. May they rot in their own corruption. (I am venomous, aren't I?)

Architecturally, the city is quite charming. It's really nice to wander down narrow cobbled streets between old, well-restored houses. The churches and palaces are gorgeous, the parks and gardens are well-tended and colorful, and the museums are well-organized and informative.

My real remaining rub is all the tourists (yes, I was aware that Prague is big on tourists before I came here). There are so many, speaking so many languages, that it doesn't feel like you're in the Czech Republic at all. It feels like you're in an amusement park. Today we took the metro away from the old city, trying to find the highrises we'd seen from a distance, and it was so metropolitanly peaceful. There were Czech people strolling, sitting on walls, listening to their iPods. I actually felt like I was someplace, not a weird nowhere of broken English.

You may call me picky, or you may say I'm losing my insufferable optimism, or that I'm a whiner, but I don't care. All I care about is that you don't visit Prague until it cleans up its act. It really doesn't deserve the attention.

But Poland! Poland is a different story.

Wroclaw was a mixed bag. Bad hotel, bad lunch, cool panorama and beautiful town square. I got to see an old friend, Grażyna, and meet her year-old daughter, Amelia, and it was really enjoyable to catch up with her. I don't really want to go into it, but there was a little episode where we'd thought Amelia had broken her finger, and Dad felt responsible, so we left Grażyna to take a screaming toddler to the hospital. That was a bit of a downer.

However, dinner was good. But we were tired, as we'd woken up about 5:00 AM.

(Amelia's finger was fine, it turned out. She was just tired and teething.)

Our car tour of Silesia was really enjoyable. I got to visit two more of my old areas (I visited all four this trip), and the drive was easy and comfortable.

Friday night we headed down into the Beskid mountains and enjoyed dinner on a lake, just before the storm sallied down. Saturday, we did some more exploring in the rainy Beskids, and lost a hub cap to a pot hole. Luckily, I noticed and adventured off the road to recover it, from among several other hub caps. (Roads were never Poland's forte.)

Speaking of roads, we met a bit of construction, and about two hours worth of traffic, on our way to Kraków. Then we had the adventure of driving in the city (not worth it, don't try it), and then an evening concert of overplayed classical music in a grand cathedral.

Then it was the night train to this Jewel of the Bohemian Crown.

Then, then, then. I'm sorry it turned into a beaten out travelogue, but all that latter information was more for my memories than for you. All I want you to remember is not to visit Prague: it's not worth it. Poland is cheaper and just as worth seeing.

We'll see how Vienna survives my nitpicking.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Lied

Strange is the fate of the Polish traveler. Here I am, in McDonald's, listening to the same corporate-mandated music videos and commercials. Except this time, my dad is here to enjoy it with me. If I were a sadist, I would make him watch the videos so he could attest, but I'll let him read the guidebook so he knows a little bit about where we are and what we can do in the next few days.

We just pulled into Wrocław about an hour and twenty minutes ago (bright and early at 5:20 AM). We took the night train from Gdańsk, and I slept a solid five and a half hours. It wasn't really all that bad, though. It was comfortable enough, besides my height. I tell you what, I found space for my feet in the smallest of crannies.

Last Thursday night totally changed the direction of my week. We went to the Gładun's house for dinner, and Beata cooked the most amazing żurek, which is my favorite Polish soup, and gołąbki, which are my favorite main course. Then her desserts--good criminy high heavens to the milky way they were AMAZING. As you all know, the cafeteria has been the great thorn in my eye this summer, so it was most welcome.

After that, we caught a bus to the philharmonic and watched the Poznań Nightingales, a boys' and men's choir, sing nine numbers. It was heavenly. And the conductor was 84 years old. The best part of it all, was that there were all these butcher-shop basses on the back row singing with human feeling. It totally changed my view of The Polish Male.

Then we got our diplomas and declined white wine.

Friday night was good and tiring. I went to the pub with some fellow BYUers and Karolina, the Polish girl that's so cool. It was an Irish pub, and Karolina had also invited some Irishmen at the school, so we watched part of the opening ceremonies in a strange mash of culture and drank fruit juice. And I got to bed at a reasonable hour to train to Warsaw the next morning.

Our time in Warsaw was fantastic. Saturday we got to the airport in good time and picked up my dad, then we went to my friends' Joanna and Tomek's house for a late Polish lunch. She's been wonderful about cooking poultry for me, and we had a really enjoyable afternoon. They're so hospitable.

That night we decided to try to go to Professor Whipple's fireside-recital. We thought it started at 7:00, but it started at 6:00, so we walk in, an hour late, with me in jeans and a polo shirt, in front of the mission president and everyone. I blushed. On the plus side, we only had to sit in the hot chapel for 20 minutes, then we got refreshments.

We also got to see the Boothe's, an American couple who helped me in my illness while I was here, and we got to meet the mission president and his wife, who are both charming people with lots of smiles and genuine interest.

Sunday we were late to meet Kathryn and her husband, and as I was supposed to lead them to the chapel, I was worried that they were also late, so we waited for a half an hour. When we walked into church, half an hour late, who should be sitting at the front of the room but the mission president. At least I was wearing slacks and a white shirt that time. I still blushed. (Kathryn had found the missionaries and gone ahead to the chapel.)

That afternoon we had dinner at Joanna and Tomek's again, then they went with us to Łazienki Park to enjoy the Chopin concert. It was almost perfect. The musicianship was of high quality, and the milieu was enchanting--except for the busy street that runs just a belt of trees away from the benches. Nonetheless, our time in the park was great. I practiced a lot of Polish, and Tomek practiced a lot of English.

That night at dinner, a South African (we found out later) man invited us to sit at his table, as there were none left, and we had a lovely conversation. He was a safari guide in Africa, met his wife from Australia on his last safari, and they've lived in London for five years with him being product manager for the safari tour company. Now they're traveling Europe for six months before moving to Australia. Beat that, interesting people.

Monday we spent again with Joanna, wandering around the old city, boating on the Wisła, touring the royal castle. Then that night we went to dinner with the Boothe's at a folksy little place with live music and dancing. Everyone agreed that I should have won the whip-cracking contest hands down, but they had a run-off and I lost. What can I say, I lost my form.

First thing Wednesday (by which I mean 10:30 because I couldn't wake up) we headed to Sopot and the beach. It was distinctly unromantic, walking in the sand in tennis shoes, but it was pleasant weather. We went out onto the wharf to see about a boat on the harbor, and instead decided to spend that money on lunch on the wharf. We had just started our meal when a gust of wind popped the tarp roof of the restaurant next to us, and seagull poop rained down on us. Needless to say, we moved inside, and they were nice enough to give us new meals. Oh it was so gross.

Later that afternoon a withering storm blew through Gdańsk. We took refuge in a church (the biggest brick church in the world), but we saw the broken umbrella's being carried away from the restaurants, and Dad got pictures.

The next event of note was the night train here, which was bumpy and cramped, but we slept and it wasn't all bad, though we've been stuck in the train station for two hours and have another hour and a half to wait. But I got time to write this blog.

And in the comments on the last post it was delicately insinuated that I am not satisfactorily optimistic. I must differ, however, as I am looking forward to my return to America with skads of positive energy. Well, and I'm currently quite satisfied; getting away from that cafeteria helped change my attitude as well. I challenge anyone to eat cabbage pancakes with a smile on their face, though I do appreciate the appeal to the positive tenth of my personality :).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Winding Down

(That last post I wrote last Monday while I was sick.)

Just to set the tone, the current music video involves a teenager leading dogs around with remote-control leashes. I'm not sure how to describe it, except crappy.

So, we had our test today and tomorrow is the last day of class and Saturday I'll spirit myself away to Warsaw, in the quiet early morning. School is all winding down and I'm trying to pump myself up for another 20 days in Europe.

What I really want is just to go home, as ungrateful as that sounds. This week has been crappy, as I've still been sick, and I'm searching for energy in all the remote corners of my pancreas and psyche, and I'm not finding it.

Granted, I'm surviving. With the test over and my laundry in the machine, life looks a great deal brighter. I think I'm going to dirty my clothes in joy at the sight of American machines, and then do some laundry. I might kiss the dryer too.

The test was a breeze. The teacher gave us a lot of answers. Her justification was that we're not here to be tested, we're here to learn Polish, so instead of taking a test it was kind of just a learning activity. I might say that she's really cool.

And I'm sure a lot of other worthwhile things happened this week, but I can't think of them. Oh, we had apple pancakes last night for dinner, and it was wonderful. Then they gave us cabbage pancakes for lunch today, and it was awful. As much as it puts me out to cook my own food, I cannot wait to get away from this cafeteria.

I suppose I should also mention that I'm experiencing cultural exhaustion. The music, the clothes, the butcher-shop men (they're all thugs) and the Barbie women are all too much for me. Also the napkins (tissue paper!). If you can't tell, I really miss America. Yes, you may call me a patriot.

I'm not alone, either. Most of our conversations this week have centered on how excited we are to go home. It's just so tiring.

So, I think it's goodbye for now. After all this work to excite myself about my impending tourism, I'm not going to be spending time writing blogs. Well, who knows. Maybe I shouldn't leave you with this great eruption of negative.

Well, I was going to search for something positive to end with, but Avril Lavigne just appeared on the screen. It's all too much. Enjoy your August!

Going Wild

Well, the sad crap of the matter is that I got sick, really sick. On Thursday I began feeling a little bit out of it, then on Friday I was all out of sorts and towards evening I felt awful. Saturday was even worse, and, apart from doing my laundry, which was hard, I lay down all day. Sunday was better, but then towards evening I got worse again.

I’m dizzy and achy and exhausted and I’ve had some abdominal pain, along with wrenching headaches.

I hate being sick in Poland.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time in my room since Friday…well, basically the whole time since Friday night. It’s starting to smell a little funny. For one, we have wood sculptures in here that have a peculiar redolence. For two, we’ve had to dry laundry in here a couple of times in the past weeks, and that certainly moistens the air. And worst of all, the ladies haven’t changed my bed linens (which consist of a sheet and a duvet cover—hardly linens at all) as Professor Whipple told me to expect.

Oh, I’ve been showering in earnest and leaving the room fully open, especially as the heat is barely tolerable, but that has also meant a minor invasion of insect species. Just today I did battle with a wasp. It retreated. But I haven’t been killing the spiders in the corners because they catch the moths, flies and dragonflies. On a more pleasant note a butterfly flew in today. I chased it out though, because I don’t want caterpillars eating my precious bed linens. Well, plus trodding on them barefoot would be nasty.

Thank heaven for shampoo and soap or I would feel entirely feral. As it is, I’m sleeping on a Styrofoam mattress with a thin sheet and forest creatures crawling around me.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Today? Today is a good day, because I don't have to endure the brainless torrent of music videos in McDonald's! How did I gain this favor? My friend Katharina is staying in the university's more ritzy hotel, where they have internet in the rooms, and as she is gone to Toruń for the weekend, she lent me her key and I can have all the internet I want with absolutely no Avril Lavigne. It's like crack without the addiction! although, that metaphor falls apart really quickly.

This week? This week has been a hard week. (In honesty, the first part of today was also harder--but everything in proper order.)

Last Saturday we took our side trip to Warsaw. We were an hour and a half late leaving because they found out at the last minute that the A/C in the waiting bus was defunct (It's at this point I really miss Daniel, because I swear there's a Yiddish word for that that I would rather use. No, it's not "kaput," I already checked the etymology on that one.), so we waited for a new bus. You see, the weather in the past week has warmed significantly, and anyone standing in direct sunlight will quickly sweat his pants.

But the trip to Warsaw was fun. I went with Professor Whipple to a folk art shop on the Old Town Square and got to meet the wonderful folk sculpture expert who helped him develop the beginnings of his collection. I also must say that she was an undeniable saleswoman, but that is all I will say.

We also had a tour guide, though I missed the first part of the tour for the folk art shop. He took us around the old town, then on the bus we drove through the most important streets and it was a great way to see the city, most of which I hadn't seen.

At the end of the day we had a little bit of free time, so I went with Nate and Jake to the Warsaw chapel for the bi-branch picnic. There I got to see a member that attended my branch when I was in Warsaw. Call me forward, but I gave her a hug. Pshaw.

And then I ran, yes I ran, away from the ubiquitous kiełbasa back to meet the group before they went to dinner--and it was beef and barley. Granted, the gravy was really good, so I cleaned my plate (first time! I think), but barley doesn't especially please the palate. I did, however, get to hang out with four fantastic females (Katharina, Ally (sp), Kathryn and Brooke), and it was a good time.

A lot of people don't like Warsaw, whether because it's too busy or heartless, I don't know. I, however, really appreciate it as a fantastic metropolis, and I enjoy my time there. So, if you're ever in the area, I recommend visiting. It has old and new to suit any European traveler, and hopefully someone from the chamber of commerce will see this and hire me to do marketing.

Sunday night I went out to dinner with Katharina, Ally, Dan and Karolina. Katharina is German-American, Ally is half Cuban-American, Dan is Jewish-Canadian, Karolina is Polish, and I am Anglo-Viking-mutt, so it was quite an international crowd, and I had a blast. I think I was born to be friends with hip (yes, hip people use the word "hip"), young, progressive graduate students. I'm still a tiny bit intimidated by their level of education, though none of them parade it at all, but they're just fantastic human beings, and it was kind of the apex of everything I hoped for this summer.

Then came Weird Monday. We got a huge new group of students in to start the second cycle of the summer school, and everything was thrown into chaos. We switched cafeterias, and now instead of round, familial tables we have long, penal tables. You don't really feel as if you're sitting next to anyone, and all our friendly crew was separated from each other. What's more, every time you took something from down the table you felt like a thief, and we were all dismayed by the sudden dearth of strawberry jam.

That night, Brooke and Kathryn and I prayed together, as Professor Whipple was already in Pelplin and Nate and Jake had gone to Gdańsk, and we commiserated a little bit. But just a little bit.

Tuesday I said goodbye to Dan, and it was deeply sad. He's been my sanity-support for the last three weeks, and I already miss him a lot.

That same day, Kathryn and Brooke and I trained our way to Gdańsk. It was a long bit of railroad, and it was stressful for me as the responsible, Polish-speaking party. I shoved my pride in the toilet and obsessively told everyone around me where we were trying to go and would they please let me know if there was an announcement I didn't understand (because I don't understand them). I'm happy to say we made our way entirely successfully.

In Gdańsk we walked town the main tourist street, ate at the hotel, slept in the hotel, and then walked down another major tourist street. We were there too late and too early to do anything else. We also went south to visit Malbork Castle, essentially the capital of the Order of the Teutonic Knights. It's one of the biggest brick castles in the world, and was really an impressive three-hour tour.

Then we made my very nervous way to Pelplin, a town of about 7000 people that, oddly enough, is home to the seat of a diocese. The cathedral is huge and fantastic--tastefully decorated in the baroque style, with the third tallest altar in Europe, one tremendous (according to Professor Whipple) baroque organ, and another huge romantic-era organ, both recently restored.

We stayed in the seminary while we were there, and that was an experience in and of itself. In our rooms were cards wishing us much inspiration signed by John Paul II. We even ate in the refectory, a word I learned just for the occasion. However, the water never got hot, and as religious a person as I am (right), I decided that I probably would have abandoned hopes of the priesthood rather than spend six years taking cold showers. (The Poles, at this point, would call me a scandal.)

Professor Whipple's recital went very well. Everyone thought he was miraculous, and, as that was the whole reason I went on the excursion, I was entirely pleased.

Our journey back had its snags, including conductors that refuse to recognize the student status of anyone who's not Polish, (no matter where we come from, I promise we're not rolling in cash, especially as we're in Poland, versus, say, bleed-your-wallet-dry Norway) but in the end I got the student rate and we made it back to Lublin in time to enjoy a superb dinner at a superb restaurant.

And then I woke up and had to go to school. Oh, I didn't want to go at all, and as breakfast in these parts is no miracle, I had nothing to pull me in the direction of the university this morning. Class was really hard to focus on, and then, to make matters worse, we moved into a really echoey room to watch a movie and I couldn't understand a thing. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that I probably wouldn't understand in English either, but that doesn't help the boiling frustration.

So, I was overjoyed to get here to Katharina's room, where it's quiet and cool and I can do all the necessary computer updates using reliable internet connection--in English. Hallelujah, indeed.