Back in the Writing Saddle Again

It has been way too long since I jotted any notes about my travels or about any subject for that matter. I won’t call it writer.’a block. I will call it “life getting in the way of what I really want to do, and that is write”.

So, I begin again. I hope that life’s distractions or computer glitches won’t get in the way this time.

I will be in the paradise that is Costa Rica for the next six weeks so maybe writing will be easier.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My friend Mary

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure – The Finale

Friday, April 5. By now, all we wanted to do was leave the city and go to Hordynia. Maybe we would luck out and find our cousins. We were searching for the daughter of my father’s sister, Anna, or as she was lovingly called, Hanushka. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Anna was arrested and sent with other prisoners by train to Siberia, to a work camp, with her young daughter, Stanislawa or Staszka (Stacia) for short. Fearing her daughter would not survive the harsh elements, Anna pinned the daughter’s name and address to her clothing and handed her through the train window to a group of Russian track workers. Staszka was sent to a Russian orphanage where she was reunited with her mother after Anna’s release. I often imagine the emotion of such a reunion. It would be a tear jerker of a movie. I don’t know why Anna was arrested, but the authorities didn’t need a reason in those days and Anna, a strong-willed woman, may have been a political activist or, at least, a resistor. I don’t know how long she was interred. I do know it was years rather than months and that hard labor in Siberia had turned the once vibrant, tall and strong Anna into a sickly wisp of a woman. It’s a wonder she survived at all. She went on to live until 1958, but was only 64 at her death. Staszka worked in a kolchoz, a collective farm in the Soviet Union. Kolchoz members worked long and hard with no rights and few benefits, something akin to neo-serfdom. Staszka married a Ukrainian man and her surname became Janusziewicz. They had three children, two girls and a boy. The son’s name is Marian. If Staszka is still alive she would be in her mid-70’s.  Anna’s last known residence was in Hordynia.
 
We set the alarm for six, gathered our stuff and disturbed the sleepy, smiling clerk for the third and final time. Hostel policy required that keys be returned to the office upon departure.  
The day was cloudy and chilly, temperatures in the thirties, but at least moisture wasn’t falling from the sky. The tram, which we no longer feared, stopped just a few minutes walk away. Finding the right tram wasn’t all that easy. We needed the #9, yet all that kept coming was the #2 – every few minutes. A #10 arrived after three #2’s. One of the boarding passengers tried to tell us in Ukrainian that the #10 would take us to the train station. How did he know where we were going? Oh, yes, the suitcases – a dead giveaway. And we should have listened to him, because, as we discovered later, he was right. Three more #2’s came before we spotted the #9 coming ’round the bend. We deserved the drippy noses and frozen finger tips for disbelieving.

Janice paid the driver using her best sign language and we settled in for the ride which I estimated would take about twenty minutes. I followed the names printed on the bus wall and tried to match them up with the names of the actual stops. The words had many letters and were written in Cyrillic. I felt intellectually challenged. The names didn’t always match up, but I wasn’t too worried because we had been to the train station. I felt confident we would recognize the stop. Plus it was already daylight and easier to navigate.

The “bus station” consisted of a myriad of busses parked in a mud pit. It was a hodgepodge, fend for yourself, situation. Everyone seemed to know where they were going, everyone except us. I walked over to a bus and in my best Polish/Ukrainian/sign language asked the driver which bus would take us to the city of Sambir. He pointed to a bus and we rushed to it, carrying our luggage high to avoid the mud. The bus driver was not amused by my cutsie attempt to communicate. He asked me sternly in what I recognized as Russian, where was I going. “Where are you going?” must be similar in Ukrainian and Russian, I surmised. I murmured ‘Sambir’ and he held out his hand for the 36 Hryvnia for two seats. The bus was beautiful: huge, modern and very comfortable – but no toilet on board. The roads were atrocious: muddy, eroded and with huge random potholes. Most of the roads were somewhat paved, but driving was a challenge. The swervings and meanderings reminded me of an amusement park ride. The roadsides and the areas near the homes and outbuildings were muddy, the lowlands, flooded and the rolling hills in the distance were covered with newly fallen and accumulated snow. I developed an appreciation for the term ‘mud season’ as I watched people maneuvering around the thick, brown muck. Knee-high boots were a must – just to walk from the house to the mail box. The mud season I experienced in the U.S. is a priss compared to that of the Ukraine where houses, barns, corrals, people and livestock wallow in it. And the melting snow caused the water level to rise which only compounded the problem. But, it sure was picturesque. The countryside is beautiful, but the country is poor and the drainage system is mediocre at best. I vowed to never complain about the weather back home. The hardships of the Ukrainian villagers will be imbedded in my brain forever.

As I gazed upon the loveliness, I was not without anxiety. Since I had chosen the window seat, it was my job to count down the kilometers to Sambir. My guess was that we would know when we got there, but I wasn’t going to bet money on it. My eagle eyes riveted to the roadside for signs.
The trip, which included many stops, took two and a half hours. We had traversed less than fifty miles. I blame the potholes.
 Both Janice and I remembered the ‘bus station’ from our previous visit. The Sambir station was even more hodgepodge and more muddy. We disembarked in the middle of a mud pit. We held our luggage high. It was a quarter past ten. We walked to the information booth. After frustrating the clerk with one misunderstanding after another, we got it. We could wait until 12:10 for a marshrutka to Hordynia or we could walk to the center and board a bus at 10:40. The center was walkable, but we were not comprehending the directions. And we probably did not have enough time.

After the bumpy roads and swerves, I felt an urgency to locate a bathroom. Huge WC letters beckoned us from the other side of yet another mud pit, reachable only through undistinguishable paths. We paid 1 Hryvnia for a swatch of coarse toilet paper and entered the realm of a smelly, dirty stall containing little more than a ceramic bowl arising from a hole in the ground. One squatted rather than sat, then flushed quickly. Yes, it did flush. You had to move fast because the odor was overwhelming. But, I was nothing less than grateful for the facility.

 The next forty-five minutes were filled with confusion. Walking to the center was out of the question. And waiting until 12:10 seemed silly, since we didn’t really know how long it would take us to get to Hordynia. And we did not know what we would find once we got there – not to mention getting back. Too many unknowns. It was a big risk.

I tried to communicate with a middle-aged woman who seemed to be waiting for transportation. She glared at me and walked away. We went into a store which sold everything a bus passenger might want. A friendly clerk tried to help, but we weren’t getting anywhere. She asked if we spoke Spanish. I tried my high school Spanish on her, but we were still missing something. We went outside to confer. The atmosphere was not friendly. I began to feel, if not unsafe, at least uncomfortable. One more attempt at the information booth only confused us more. A taxi driver, who spoke Polish, gave us vague information about the busses. Maybe he just did not know, more likely, he was trying to get our business. He said a bus would take at least an hour to an hour and a half to get to Hordynia. I didn’t buy it. It was only about 10 miles. He offered to take us in his cab for 150 Hryvnia each way. That’s a total of $40. Seemed like a rip-off, though not unheard of in the U.S. I did not want to appear like an easy mark. We politely declined.
As we stood on the wooden platform near the mud, we noticed crows gathering in the trees behind us. Their cackling invaded the air. They grew larger in number and in volume. This was a bad omen. Gathering crows – not a good sign! The messages were so confusing. The only constant and clear message was the bus which had the name of the border town clearly printed on the window in large block letters. Janice mentioned this and expressed discomfort with the gathering crows. She suggested we scrap the trip and head back to Poland. I said, “Let’s go!” And we all but ran to the border bus, paid the driver 15 Hryvnia each and called it quits. It felt like forces were working against. It wasn’t easy like it had been on our last trip to the Ukraine, when we found my father’s village after a few very minor glitches. This just wasn’t working out. Maybe mud season wasn’t a good time to look for cousins in the Ukraine. Janice vowed to come back during the summer when the ground was dry and the air warmer. Sounded like a plan.

I relented and settled into my seat. I let Janice have the window seat. The drive was soothing. I gazed at the abundance of storks in the meadows and on rooftops of the ‘lucky’ homes. As in Poland, it is considered ‘good luck’ to have a stork build it’s nest on your chimney. The nests are gigantic and all I could think of was blocked chimneys, downdrafts and smokey parlors. I marveled at the men on the bus who tipped their hats every time we passed a church and the women who crossed themselves. There sure are a lot of churches on a two-hour ride in a poor, pious country and that’s a lot of tipping and crossing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure: The Middle, Part V

Thursday, April 4 – another dreary, rainy day. Yesterday’s snow was melting, creating slush and sloppiness. What fell on the ground, stayed on the ground. For economic or other reasons, no one was plowing or shoveling. Our appointment at the Archives wasn’t until 11. No need to rush out the door into the gruesome weather.  We would sleep in and relax in our room until it was time to leave for our appointment. I was awake at my ingrained-in-me 5AM, but Janice managed to sleep until almost 8.
We had a leisurely breakfast in our room – bread, cheese, juice and coffee and were out of the hostel by ten, walked over to the Tourist Information Bureau to see if our new friends might advise us on a better way to travel to Hordynia than the torture show we attempted on the previous day. Indeed!! There was! We could take a tram to the train station and find a bus, among those lined up along the street in the makeshift and disorganized “bus station”, take a bus to the town of Sambir – about 60 kilometers or 40 miles, and then take a bus to the village of Hordynia. Sounded a lot easier than fighting claustrophobia and packed-in commuters on a marshrutka. We would do this tomorrow or Saturday depending on what we found at the Archives.
At 10:45 we presented ourselves at the Archives reception desk, and went through the regimented procedure that we learned three days before. My stomach flip flopped with anticipation. We kept our coats on – the research room was still cold and dank. We pored over the antiquated and at times crumbling record books for two hours. We did not find a single “Zielonka” or any other family name. The clerks were very helpful, and, like us, very saddened when they realized that we had gleaned zero results. They suggested that we go back to Drohobycz, the town near my father’s village, and try to gain access of the civil records, which may or more likely, may not, be available for public scrutiny.   
Dejected and incredulous, we walked out of the dark building and into the bright sunshine. We drowned our sorrows in gigantic calzones at the pizza shop where we had felt so at home. I had a ham and cheese calzone. Searching for the elusive ham bits distracted me from my woe and feeling of failure. Janice delighted in her spinach and cheese but also felt the tug of disappointment. The only conclusion we could draw for the total lack of family names was that the records had been burned when the Russians torched the village church after World War II. Days later, I lamented the fact that we had only searched for Roman Catholic records. Was it possible that some of my family were Greco-Catholic? Very unlikely, in my mind. But, perhaps we should have been more thorough and looked through the Greco-Catholic records nevertheless! But, while we sat in the restaurant, drowning our sorrows in a local beer, we hadn’t even conceived that our family were anything but Roman Catholics. And probably so. My fathers diaries had only mentioned Roman Catholicism. Janice vowed to come back in the summer and visit Drohobycz in search of civil records.
There was nothing more to be done in Lviv. We spent the evening in our room, reading and lamenting. Tomorrow we would get an early start and try our luck in the search for Hordynia.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure: The middle, part IV

Wednesday, April 3 : “Back to winter” day! We set the alarm for six. We had to pack up our things and move to a room with a shared bath. Someone else had reserved the private-bath room for the next three nights. So, we left begrudgingly.
6 AM!  Still pitch black outside. We packed up our stuff, marched up to the third floor office and proceeded to waken the night girl yet again. I think this young lady slept with a smile on, because that is how she greeted us – bleary eyed, slurry speech, but smiling. And no, it was not a problem, is how she responded to our apologies. We walked back downstairs as our shared-bath room was right across the hall from our previous room. The room was less expensive, bigger, brighter and more elegant ( fancier curtains), with a view of the main street. Our previous view consisted of a back alleyway, loud, dripping drainage pipes and the dreary back doors of several businesses. In the new room, we could monitor the excitement of the rush hour traffic – almost like a demolition derby, except miraculously we never witnessed any actual demolition  – and all the action of a busy city. The huge picture window allowed access to a panoramic view. Directly in front of us, across the main road was an underground public bathroom. A large printed WC announced this fact.  Every evening at dusk, a public works person came by and covered the entrance to the restroom with an intricate booby trap of decorative metal piping to prevent access to the stairs. A way to keep out the homeless or maybe, young lovers, I guessed. Or perhaps, wayward dogs or tigers or bears. Of course, there were no wayward animals here. And certainly very few dogs. There is a lot of poverty in the Ukraine. I believe the number of pets in a country is a barometer of how the country is doing economically. Every morning at sunrise, or whenever the worker got around to it, the booby trap was removed, allowing access to those in need. To the right of the WC was a modern kiosk, like the ones you see in Poland, that sell everything from magazines to shoelaces. Every evening, when the kiosk is shut down, the proprietor removes all displays from the windows, possibly to discourage breakage and theft. The items are replaced in the morning. A tedious process as the wall-to-wall windows are filled with stuff. A small park, lined with benches and perambulators, lies beyond. To the right of the view, a huge esplanade leading to the ostentatious Opera House, which you can barely spot if you open the window wide and lean out as far as possible. Oh, yes, the threat of lawsuits isn’t as prevalent here as it is in the states where all the hotel windows are glued shut or otherwise made inoperable. In much of Europe you can open the window in your hotel and let the fresh air in without fear of lawsuit should someone fall or drop a book or hair dryer on someone below. A heavy duty window shelf, which held Janice fine, but upon which I wouldn’t dare venture, guaranteed hours of enjoyable people-watching. The highlight of the view was the long bright red and yellow tourist train which traversed the demolition course on a regular schedule. All this – better than watching TV!
 
Wednesday’s weather was less than desirable. What started out as rain had now turned to rapidly falling gigantic, spider-like flakes of snow. We set out reluctantly. The plan was to take a local bus to the main bus station and find out the best way to get to the village of Hordynia where I hoped to search out long lost cousins. It was less than twenty miles away, but there did not appear to be a direct route. I opened up the umbrella the second we exited the hostel. Those without umbrellas quickly turned into walking snow men and women as the large flakes had a way of clinging and accumulating. As we rounded the bend to the bus stop, the 3A, a full-sized, near empty modern bus was just pulling away. Rather than wait the fifteen minutes for the next 3A, we walked around the corner and down the street to another bus stop where we could pick up the 25, a commuter bus, which would also take us to the  main bus station. The huge snow flakes continued to clog the air space and walkways. Do snowflakes grow bigger in the Ukraine? Seems so!
 
The 25 is a minibus, what they call a “marshrutka”, which comfortably seats about 20 adults. As we approached the stop, morning commuters were stuffing themselves into various marshrutkas with various identifying numbers. It could have been comical, but it was kinda sad. In the US, we complain about our commutes to and from work, but I guarantee you anyone who has ever witnessed the stuffing of passengers onto a marshrutka would be a fool to ever complain about their ride into work. Just watching the process recalled my occasional claustrophobia. I shivered, and not from the cold.
 
We should have given up at this point, but we were optimistic that we would find a spot – certainly not a seat, but a piece of bus floor to stand on. I clutched my 2 Hryvnia and wondered how I was ever going to get close enough to the driver to pay the fare. How did the other passengers pay? In the Ukraine you pay the driver directly. So, how to pay? Do you just fling the change toward the driver? Do you hand it to your neighbor in hopes that he or she will pass it along? I certainly did not want to chance not paying. I had already had that experience in Poland when I neglected to validate a ticket and the inspectors just happened to be on board searching out scofflaws. I decided I would cross that bridge when I came to it. Who knew if we would even make it onto a bus!
The 25’s ran frequently, but each one was jam packed and a competition to get on. There were probably 60 people on each bus, maybe more. As the doors closed, they pushed the bodies together into what appeared to be a solid people mass. More claustrophobia just watching it! We tried to board the approaching 25, but we were such obvious novices in packing ourselves into a marshrutka. The bus quickly reached its limit. There was no way it was going to happen. We almost got Janice on, but pushing with all my might produced no results with my boarding attempt. A space holds only so much matter. Trying to accomplish the un-accomplishable is a waste of energy.
We retreated, watched as the doors closed and the tottering marshrutka took off. The forces were not in our favor. I felt dejected, we had lost the battle of the bus boarding. The increasingly bad weather, missing the spacious 3A and our inability to make like a sardine and board a marshrutka were all omens that did not bode well for our trip to Hordynia. We called it quits, found the nearest internet cafe so we could thaw out and regroup, and ordered coffee and a pricey cheesecake and tiramisu – at 9:30 in the morning!!
After three hours on the internet, catching up on emails and Facebook and discovering that the History Museum was closed on Wednesdays and that John Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”, was in trouble with the Egyptian government for supporting an Egyptian comedian who was satirizing and, thereby, ‘insulting’ his president and Islamic leaders by making fun of their hats, we decided to have lunch. The snow had not let up. The streets and sidewalks were pure slush.
We lunched at a Ukrainian fare restaurant near the rynek. Unaptly named the Victorian Tea House (it did serve a variety of teas), it had the friendliest and most accommodating waitress and the best chicken fricassee with fresh carrots, mushrooms and celery slices. Janice had spinach dumplings, also delicious.
After lunched we trudged through the open air market. Most wares were covered with plastic and many of the stalls had already been stricken down.
 
We spent the afternoon relaxing and reading. As evening approached, I suddenly got the urge to try the Ukrainian McDonald’s, which was just down the street. All I wanted was a cheeseburger. I had sampled a cheeseburger at a Polish Burger King and it wasn’t half bad. The meat was real. But, this McDonalds was a disappointment, the fries were excessively salted and the cheeseburger just as dry and tasteless as back home. But the establishment was huge and modern and crowded. We barely found a seat on the second level.
We scurried through the slush to the grocery store for cheese, bread and orange juice, then back to the hostel to dry out Janice’s leaky boots and wet feet.
Maybe tomorrow we would have better luck with the records at the Archives – 11AM seemed a long way off.
 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure – The Middle, Part III

Tuesday April 2, turned out to be one of the nicest weatherwise. The sun peeked out after an early morning rain, temperatures hit the low forties during the height of the day and snow began to melt like crazy. The drip drip dripping could be heard and felt from rooftops, and sidewalks and streets were transformed from snow-covered to slush.

 

Good day to search for the archives of the University where my father had studied theology in the early 1920’s – Jan Kazimierz University, named after a Polish king in 1661, and the oldest continually operating university in the Ukraine. The partition and repatriation of Eastern Poland following WWII, led to a name change for the University, named after Ivan Franko, a 17th century Ukrainian author and scholar.

 

Finding the University Archives proved difficult, even though we knew it was located on the now infamous-in-our-minds Doroshenko Street. The street itself was easy to find. After a day of traipsing around the neighborhood, we were now pretty familiar with the city center. We learned that Doroshenko was an extension of the one-block-long street of a different name which housed our hostel. Doroshenko 41, purportedly home to the archives, was clearly marked, the entrance wasn’t. The obvious door was locked and clearly out of order – an arrow directed us to the side of the building and the Geography Department. There was no mention of “Archives,” just “Geography”. A battered chain-link gate, for car and people traffic, was padlocked and inaccessible. A small gate to its left was partially open, guaranteeing access to midgets and thin people, but only after they performed a contorted ballet over the crumbling concrete steps on either side. We managed to squeeze through and found ourselves in a football-sized courtyard with multiple doorways, each harboring a red “Entry Forbidden” sign to its left. We entered the forbidden zone which had the most human traffic.

 

We soon learned why the front door had been locked. Several workmen, perched on ladders and scaffolding, were painting the very high arched ceiling. We stood there mesmerized and paralyzed. Our only option was up a steep flight of very wide stone stairs. The only signs mentioned “geography” not “archives.” A young lady sensed our confusion and asked in Ukrainian if we needed help finding the exit. I asked and she acknowledged that she spoke some Polish. I explained our plight – she directed us upstairs toward what sounded like the “deacon’s” office. Once there, we encountered more confusion. No door had a sign on it that resembled the word “deacon.” I must have misunderstood or misheard. We wandering up and down the long corridor with numerous windowless doors. Would we disturb a class or a meeting if we knocked or, worse yet, just entered? After struggling with several signs in cyrillic, we chose the one that designated the “biblioteka” or library, hopefully a safe bet.

 

The library was tiny, but had wall-to-wall shelves filled to the ceiling with dusty tomes. An elderly woman was sitting at a squeezed-in table poring over a pile of books. A friendly and welcoming librarian greeted us with a smile. I asked, “Polish or English?” She laughed and replied, “No! Ukrainskie!” – then quickly added in Ukrainian (which I got) “But, I will understand.”We all giggled nervously, including the woman at the table. But, understand she did. She beckoned for us to follow her out the door and down the stairs to the exit door. She gestured and pointed and after the third take, we got it that we had to walk to the end of the courtyard, enter the opposing building through the double doors, turn left and up the stairs. By now, we were convinced that the “Entry Forbidden” signs were there for the fun of it, because there it was, another one facing us as we approached the designated door. And this time we had permission – from the librarian, no less!

 

After stumbling a bit, for there were two sets of stairs on the left, we found what we were looking for. As we entered another windowless door – we never knew if we should knock or go right through – we were greeted by a nervous young man sitting behind a high counter. Not only was he nervous, he actually looked kind of scared. He nodded “no” to Polish and English. I painfully struggled to explain what we were searching and was met with a blank expression. I murmured to Janice in English, trying to decide what Polish words might be understood in Ukrainian. His face lit up, “You speak English.” And the rest was almost a piece of cake. His English was bad, but between that and the few Ukrainian words I was certain of, and some which I mangled by using my Polish, we got the message that we needed to go somewhere else. All University records before 1939 were kept in the State Historical Archives. Back to the city center. He suggested we take the #2 tram. I’m thinking, no more trams, no more trams! We would walk. We knew it was no more than a fifteen minute walk back to the center. He told us to find the outdoor book market and right behind the statue of Ivan Fedorov, right behind his butt (he tapped his flank), was the entryway to the archives we needed.

 

Since we were close by, we decided to visit our new friends at the Tourist Information Center, just to be sure we were on the right path. Sure enough, after trudging through a maze of hard packed snow, past a bronze statue of someone who we weren’t able to get close enough to to read the inscription about because it was guarded by a woman, a self-appointed tour guide, who for a fee would explain all in Ukrainian . ( I noticed several such tour guide at other historical sites.) And when she saw I had glanced toward the statue, she launched a torrent of Ukrainian words and gestures inviting me over. Little did she know that I did not speak Ukrainian. But a good way for an unemployed person to make a few extra Hryvnias. We rushed away because we had spotted the outdoor book market. And I, for one, feared she might chase us down. She seemed that determined!

 

Hundreds and hundreds of books covered a concrete courtyard- on the ground atop sheets of plastic, on bedraggled beach recliners or other makeshift holders and on the edges of the concrete barriers defining the courtyard. This is a daily year round market!! In the middle stood the Fedorov statue, gargantuan and awe-inspiring. It took my breath away – at least twenty feet tall, stern expression on his huge chiseled face, flowing robes extending behind him, giving the appearance of a body against a gust of wind, and high bulky boots not unlike those worn by Cossacks …. or cowboys. I thought he might have been a war hero, a god or a king, but alas he was a 16th century printing pioneer. Certainly important, but why instill such shock and awe in the onlooker with the likes of someone who created printing presses. Gargantuan should be reserved for war heroes (in my book)!!

 

And sure enough, right behind his butt, was the entryway to the Archives which was adorned by a cute gray guard cat and a sweet elderly gentleman who all but greeted us with a hug. He pointed us in the right direction. Another long path to the entrance and we found ourselves in a dark hallway behind a half dozen people near yet another door with no windows and the only indication that there was something on the other side were several typewritten sheets tacked onto the door which seemed to list hours of operation for each day of the week. I was nervous because it looked like they took a break at noon which meant we had about ten minutes. We were almost at the door. A tall middle-aged woman dressed in a full length leopard skin coat and matching hat exited the room. I took this as permission to go in because we were next in line. But as I approached the counter, the clerk sternly told me she was still busy, so back to wait in the dark hallway. About five minutes later, an elderly gent came out, we went in, filled out the paperwork. The clerk must have had a personality change during that brief time because now she was very sweet, helpful and accommodating. She explained slowly in Ukrainian that she would process our request and send the records to Janice’s Polish address in two to three months.

 

We skipped outside, headed for a pizza place and devoured a yummy cheese and mushroom pizza which had way too few mushrooms. But the waitress was wonderful and very solicitious and adorable. Couldn’t do enough for us.

 

We spent the afternoon basking in the warmth and traipsing through the slush. A cobblestone road near the Opera House was being uprooted by heavy-duty machinery. Workmen dressed in rain gear moved and cleaned the cobblestones, then piled them off to the side. The dirt underneath would be graded and the cobblestones would be replaced, creating a smooth passageway. This has to be done every few years because the winter freeze buckles the cobblestones, they become all wobbly and dislodged and impossible to drive on..

 

We strolled past old men playing backgammon and even older men playing cards. When we needed a rest we climbed over snow mounds and sat on one of the park benches. The benches were clean and dry, but the snow around them had not been cleared, so reaching them was a tad problematic. The snow did not seem to hinder anyone else’s mobility. We refused to be in the minority.

 

Since the sun did not set until after 8PM, we had a long afternoon to explore. We walked past a 19th century palace. Count Alfred Potocki was a Polish nobleman, landowner and liberal-conservative politician ( not sure what exactly that means). He also ran a distillery in Krakow, which, I’m sure, added to his wealth. He built this beautiful and stately palace which is now a museum and art gallery.

 

More park benches to sit upon and watch the life of the city. I mentioned to Janice that there did not appear to be any dogs in Lviv. Consequently, no problem having to meander around dog droppings as in Poland. I concluded that because of the poverty in the Ukraine few people could afford pets.

 

But Lviv does have many cars and rush hour is tough to watch. It’s virtually a battle between the cars and the trams at the larger intersections. And the trams usually win. They are bigger! Crossing these streets during morning and evening commute is like playing a game of “risk your life”. Many streets have lights for pedestrians, but many do not.

 

We had dinner at a restaurant that advertised “Ukrainian Fare.” Janice, the vegetarian, had fried cheese with hidden bits of ham. Surprise! She ate it, good sport that she is. I had a pork cutlet dipped in egg batter and covered with mushrooms, melted cheese and scallions. Delicious, but the portions were small. So we ordered dessert: apple cake and cheesecake with poppy seeds and an indescribable brown frosting that had an unfamiliar taste. Dessert was also tiny but tasty.

 

We walked to our hostel, watched the sun set and went to bed early. Tomorrow we would try to find Hordynia, the village where my aunt and cousin once lived.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure – the Middle, Part II

Janice and I spent the next four days exploring the beautiful old city of Lviv, searching out University archives and vital statistics records for surrounding villages, and gathering information about Hordynia, a village which looked to be some 10-20 miles away where I believe several second cousins may still live. All the while we battled the elements. Winter was exiting this part of the world very slowly – kicking and screaming all the way.

Daniel Romanovych, a medieval Ruthenian leader, founded Lviv around 1240 and named it after his son Lev. Ruthenians are what the Ukrainians were called in the olden days. At over 750 years of age, Lviv makes my U.S. of America look like a babe in swaddling clothes.

Monday, April 1, we spent getting our bearings. We strolled around the city center (“rynek”) gazing in awe at the unique architecture of Renaissance, Baroque and Classic styles. The Opera House alone was worth the trip. Wars and occupation by Germany and the Soviets have left the city mostly intact.

We walked past huge mounds of old and new snow – the old snow was more like gigantic clumps of ice, which various and sundry people of all ages were working to minimize with picks, shovels and brooms. Many of the side streets near the rynek were impassable. Cars had been parked in whatever manner possible, left there until the thaw. The only evidence of snow removal on some side streets was the deep grooves that car tires had made as they drove through during the winter. Many of the sidewalks were a challenge for any pedestrian who dared to maneuver the lumpy, untended walkways. This would never fly back in the states, where an automatic fifty dollar fine awaited anyone who did not clear public passageways after a snowfall. Wouldn’t it be easier to remove the snow as it came? Some of the hard packed mounds probably had not been touched since their flakes first touched the ground and began to accumulate.

We passed an outdoor stage which served to entertain during the summer months. Now, it was just one solid glob of ice and snow. Yet, the outdoor market was in full force. On the edge of the rynek, midst the mud, midst the snow and ice, stood about thirty temporary shelters, little more than a bunch of boards nailed together, overflowing with knitted socks, gloves, scarves and sweaters, children’s clothing and toys, jewelry, framed paintings with scenes of Lviv, religious icons, hand painted wood carvings, fabrics, religious artwork with colorful inlaid stones delineating the scene, Lviv souvenirs and memorabilia such as “I Love Lviv” t-shirts, lots and lots of Russian nesting dolls (“matryoshkas”) and household supplies like light bulbs, batteries and utensils. We slogged through haphazard paths, traversing the muddy plot several times during the next few days. I was in awe of the multitude of items neatly arranged within the makeshift structures. When it rained or snowed, the proprietors rushed to wrap or cover the more vulnerable items in transparent plastic sheets. On the fourth day, when the moisture from above and below threatened to invade the interior of the kiosks, the proprietors began to pack up their wares and prepared to depart. Unlike many of us in the states, Eastern Europeans don’t let the weather get in the way of life. But everything has its limits.

On recommendation of the exuberant and excessively welcoming young ladies at the Tourist Information Center, we ate lunch at a large circular glassed-in patio, part of a microbrewery near the Pinzel Museum. Johann Georg Pinzel, was an 18th century Ukrainian sculptor. Though not definitively of Ukrainian birth, Pinzel is often referred to as the Ukrainian Michelangelo. Very little is known about his life, his birth and death dates are uncertain and it is not even definite that his name was Pinzel. There is even doubt among some that he was the creator of the sculptures that bear his name. Nevertheless, this man found his way to the Ukraine and now there is a museum that houses 32 Pinzel sculptures. Adults can enter the museum for 5 Hryvnias (about 67 cents – a real deal), children, for 2 Hryvnias and if you want to take pictures you must pay 20 Hryvnias which comes to almost $4.00.

Over potato pancakes with a dill cream sauce, smoked Norwegian salmon and the most delicious baked zucchini and cheese dumplings for the vegetarian of us, we watched the activity near the museum entrance. The most eye-catching were the two humans in colorful, but much-worn pig costumes waving a yellow flag imprinted with the museum name and logo. They sauntered around a limited circular space enticing customers into an old building of sun-bleached and soiled yellow brick, possibly once a church, now the Pinzel Museum. We felt obligated to sample the microbrew which made us appreciate the pig characters all the more.

After the effects of the microbrew wore off, we found our way to the south of the market square and the 17th century Bernardine Monastery, home of the Central State Historical Archives. The entrance was not easy to find – a little like traversing through a maze – but with my little bloodhound on the job and with the help of a lovely middle-aged Ukranian lady who sensed our confusion and, offering to help, escorted us through a long, windy snow and ice path, zipping through in her floor length black wool coat with massive gray fur collar and high-heeled black leather boots, like she was dancing a waltz, and all but leaving us in the snow dust.

The entrance to the Archive is precarious. Medieval doors are thick and resistant to open. A high riser or curb guarantees a stumble if you are not looking down. The hallway is dark and dank. A gigantic staircase leads to the Archive offices and search center. Dense wooden stairs, warped and uneven from years of wear, diminished my already compromised equilibrium. I was grateful for the bulky railing which helped steady me. Another high-curbed door and then a huge glass and wood swivel door emptied us into a large, dark hall. The receptionist, an older woman, bundled up against the cold and damp, greeted us warmly. We communicated in Ukrainian and Polish, she, in Ukrainian and I, in Polish. She sent us into an office where a patient young lady explained the process in Polish. She looked up the church records for my father’s village and instructed us as to which books we would have to request. But first, we each had to write out a letter asking for permission from the director to view the records. We were led into an anteroom near the director’s office. The director, an attractive middle-aged woman, while in a flurry of activity grabbed our requests and signed them hastily, her mind obviously on other more pressing issues. We were nudged back toward the nurturing receptionist, who checked our credentials, took our passports and handed us keys. We needed to put all our belongings in a locker, but “leave your coat on because it is very cold in there.” We entered the research room through an electronic security gate, found ourselves before another clerk who assisted us in filling out a questionaire written in Cyrillic. This gal spoke no English and no Polish and rolled her eyes at our inability to comprehend. Only half the form was filled out. We would pay dearly with embarrassment for our inefficiency.

So, our archival records were ordered. We could return on Thursday after 11 – (three whole days of waiting!!) – to access them. We gathered our belongings and passports and left.

We spent the rest of the day finding the Ivan Franco University, a large old complex of buildings, the largest of which once served as the parliament of Galicia. The words “entry forbidden” was written in Cyrillic near every doorway. It took me a few minutes of gawking to read and decipher it. And a few more minutes of angst, as we had just walked through such a doorway. But, we quickly concluded that this must be a precautionary measure to keep out the bad elements, since everyone else seemed to be ignoring the signs.

Done with exploring, we stopped at a coffee shop to rest our haunches. Janice ordered a capuccino and I, a hot chocolate with whipped cream (written in English, so I was sure of what I ordered). So, things in life, aren’t always as they seem. And a hot chocolate in any other country does not always look the same. My hot chocolate, served in a tiny cup, slightly larger than a demitasse, had a mud-like consistency and was blacker than black. When I asked the server about the whipped cream, he said it was mixed in. Tasty, but so thick and probably very high in calories. I will never forget the taste!

Our day ended with a trip to the grocery store where we purchased bread and cheese for supper, and milk for the hostel-provided Turkish coffee. I went to sleep looking forward to new information that Thursday might bring and marveling at the fact that I had traversed the paths of my father. I wondered if he had seen the University as I had. The big old buildings certainly had not changed a whole lot.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure – The Middle, Part I

ukraine 2013 day 2 027Easter Monday: we’re standing outside the fancy Art Nouveau style (built in 1903) Lviv train station. In the dark, in the cold. It’s not as if this place is totally foreign to us. We had spent about twelve hours in the train station and its environs in November 2011. But we did not venture far – tired, cold and dragging a roller – we clung to the immediate periphery. We made it as far as the in-the-process-of being renovated, or perhaps cleansed of angry graffiti, colossal statue and monument honoring Stepan Bandera, leader of Ukrainian nationalists during and after WWII. Bandera, pro-Hitler and antisemite, whose followers allegedly launched a pogrom that killed 4000 Lviv Jews in a matter of days, using everything from guns to metal poles. Bandera and his followers helped eliminate resistant Jews, Poles and others from their homes during reorganization of eastern Poland after the war.

Bandera’s followers were responsible for killing my father’s sister, Kasia, and her husband, Wasyl, tossing their bodies into a neighbor’s well after Wasyl failed at talk-diplomacy in an effort to convince them not to seize his home and land. Apparently, he had succeeded in doing so when the Germans tried to take over his property during the war, but the Banderites were not as reasonable as the Germans had been. It was never determined if Kasia and Wasyl were still alive when they were flung into the well. Some think yes. Nevertheless, a terrible way to die.

Bandera himself was assasinated with poison during a luncheon meeting with the KGB in 1959. He was declared “hero of Ukraine in 2010” by the outgoing president. His title was revoked less than two years later. Nowadays, about 33% of Ukrainians view Stepan Bandera as a hero and freedom fighter. I sure don’t. When I think about the gaudy and outlandish monument, I cringe.

But that was then. Now, we were back in Lviv for a longer visit.

Janice, as usual, had done her homework. We needed to board the #1 tram which would take us to our hostel near the city center. But it sure was dark and eerie. People everywhere – but such quiet! No one was talking, just sitting there in a darkened haze. Early morning rush hour to work. Well, it was actually morning and we had sprung ahead, so there should be some evidence of daylight out there. We would find out later that the sun wouldn’t rise until almost 7 AM and, as everywhere, when the sun rises, it doesn’t suddenly become daylight. It takes it’s sweet time and daylight isn’t full fledged for at least a half-hour.

To describe the #1 as “rickety” would be to pay it a compliment. It creaked and groaned as it limped along. Rust and erosion were consuming it. At the stops, the doors opened slowly and stubbornly.

Janice bought two tickets from the driver, tickets that are so pretty and artistic with an intricate drawing of a castle and other detailed minutiae that I immediately decided to frame mine. The tram was standing room only, but I soon found a seat. Dour faced people all around me. The signs at the stops were impossible to read. First of all it was dark. Secondly, the signs were difficult to view over and around the standing commuters. And third, they were, of course, in Cyrillic. I was proud that I had mastered the alphabet, but my reading skills were at best rudimentary. It takes time to squeeze out the pronounciation from a non-Cyrillic based brain. So, to guarantee that we found our stop, we counted them and read the diagram on the inside wall which was mostly blocked by standing commuters. We figured out that Doroshenko, near our hostel, would be eight stops from the train station. But we never counted on the fact that the tram, driven by a middle aged woman – as many of the trams are – would be making unscheduled stops. The first such stop came when another middle aged woman, bleached blond hair and highly energized, came running up to the tram spouting off loudly, disturbing the peaceful silence of the commute. The tram driver screeched to a halt, handed her a paper bag containing what appeared to be a bottle of liquor. Bleached blond lady took it out of the bag – yes, sure enough, it was a bottle of booze – and handed it to someone who was standing next to her.

Our count was doomed. Who knew which other stops had been unscheduled! It was still dark. Janice leaned over to me and said we should get off at the next stop. As the tram slowed down, I leaned toward the young lady across the aisle and asked, “Doroshenko???”. She looked at me quizzically and ignored me. We soon learned we had disembarked the tram at Franco Street, which turned out to be about a mile from our destination. Apparently, the #1 tram follows one of two loops, a lower loop and an upper loop. While we followed the stops of the upper loop we were actually on the lower loop tram! Go figure!!

After we got off, I briefly considered chasing the tram down. I probably could have. It hadn’t gotten too far when we realized our mistake. Still dark. Our only choice was to walk.

Though my sense of direction stinks, I managed to raise three children who are like bloodhounds. My little bloodhound daughter announced that we should continue straight and follow along the tram tracks. She believed the city center was in that direction. Made sense to follow along the tram tracks. I was just about to suggest that. Walking on uneven cobblestones in the dark is no picnic. Actually, it’s dangerous. The streets were dimly lit at best. Trams passed us by. I felt jilted. Every now and then a burst of firework-like brilliance emanated from the top of a tram. Since they run on tracks and are attached by gnarly wires and metal brackets to the electric wires above them, when the connection is disturbed by a bump or whatever, the wires spew out huge sparks of fire and an accompanying growl – dragon-like. Each time that happened, I jumped.

Periodically, we found “You are here!” maps posted on corners. Still dark out, so they were barely readable …. and, they were written in Cyrillic.

We stopped at a pastry shop where the proprietor was just opening up and hanging portable signs on the exterior of the building. Pretty, decorative signs advertising the establishment with artistic swirls and enticing pictures of mouthwatering pastry. I concluded that these lovely signs must have been defaced or stolen in the past, thus the decision to make them portable. I asked if he spoke Polish. He nodded no. We showed him the address of the hostel, but he wasn’t able to read it. He held up the index finger of his left hand and rushed inside and down a flight of stairs to get his reading glasses. Putting my Polish and limited Ukrainaian to use I gleaned that we were in the general vicinity, but he wasn’t exactly sure where our street was. Then he pointed diagonally across to a taxi stand, made the international sign of driving – holding an imaginary steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock – suggesting that we hire a cab to our destination. I felt dumped! The hostel was close. I knew that. And hiring a taxi for such a brief drive seemed silly. For a brief moment I considered coming back to this bakery to buy some goodies, but after getting dumped off to the taxi drivers, I had second thoughts. He was a very sweet man, and tried to help us. But surely he would have to know where the Old City Hostel was located. As it turns out, it wasn’t that far.

My little bloodhound said we should continue along as we had been, and sure enough, at the next “You are here!” map just a block away, we realized the hostel was close indeed.

It was 7:45. We rode a rickety elevator to the third floor where the hostel office was located. A very old building which had been renovated – beautiful. The young lady who let us in to the highly secure doors, was bleary-eyed but nice. We would waken her at an early hour two more times before we left. She was nice and friendly each time. She let us have the room even though check in wasn’t until noon. By noon, we were rested, showered, refreshed and ready to take on the city.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukrainian Adventure – The Beginning

So far, not much success gathering information about my ancestors in western Poland. A three-hour train trip and almost five hours of poring through eyesight-challenging archival records, many written in Latin, left me tired and empty-handed, but not discouraged. My daughter, a teacher of English in Poland, found substitutes and rescheduled or cancelled classes to extend her Easter holiday. We bought train tickets to Lviv, Ukraine, about 50 miles from the Polish border, where my father attended University and where the vital statistics records from surrounding Roman Catholic and Greco-Catholic parishes are kept dating back to the 14th century. By car, the trip would be a hop and a skip, but lacking a car and with rental agencies forbidding their cars out of the country, we were left with an eighteen-hour train ride which included a stopover.

 

We left Wroclaw, our home base, just before noon on Easter Sunday – the first leg, a five-hour train ride to Krakow. After a three-hour break, we would board the 8:45 PM sleeper to Lviv to arrive at six the following morning. The weather was miserable. Wet, slushy snow – snowflakes the size of pebbles. A driving snow, not just flurries. Up to six inches would fall in various locations along the way. The train was near empty, which was nice. Travel on a holiday has its perks. I watched the snow fall from the train window and felt soothed. Very pretty. Everything covered in white. We looked forward to spending our three-hour break at the huge Krakow mall which abuts the train station. Certainly, parts of it would be open for business – a coffe shop or a bar with wifi access.

 

But, we soon discovered that, in Poland, just about everything possible shuts down on Easter Sunday. Many establishments close early on Easter Saturday and remain closed through Easter Monday. It’s bad enough, though at times comforting, that Sundays are still considered a day of rest in Poland, still a very religious and family oriented country. I have become resigned to the fact that I can not buy bread at my favorite bakery on Sundays and plan accordingly. But we did not plan on seeing Krakow, a city of internationals, to be so buttoned down and zipped up. Certainly the huge mall would have something open to accommodate foreign travelers. Not a chance! We trudged through the slush, giant flakes beat down on our heads, stinging our eyes, flying up our nose and fogging up our glasses. The choices were two: sit in the overcrowded waiting room on malformed wooden benches designed to discourage long-term rest, or slog through the unshoveled parking lot to the Europejski Hotel which appeared to be open and maybe even had a place to warm up and sit in comfort. Luck was with us. The restaurant with fancy cloth tablecloths and the Polish news channel projected onto a huge screen would be home for the next few hours. We ordered beers, not hungry since we had sandwiches and snacks on the train. An aura of grumpiness and pseudo-friendliness exuded from the wait staff. I would feel the same way if I had to work on such an important holiday in a country where everyone looks forward to these all-important family gatherings.

 

We boarded the sleeper with a half-hour to spare. Good thing, because two young ladies who boarded behind us had enough luggage for ten people. I’m told that Ukrainians often come to Poland and bring back goods which are not found in their country. An elderly woman also boarded. She was dressed to the nines and dragged a huge suitcase with an empty wicker basket flung over the handle. A nice touch. Remnants of Easter.

 

The sleeper compartment was very cozy, though hot. I asked the porter, but he politely told me he was not able to adjust the temperature. It was centrally conrolled. We would have to deal with it. We left the window shades open giving us at least the semblance of coolness from the window. I took the lower bunk, mostly because I would need a crane to hoist me any higher. Janice, who has youth and limberness on her side, took the upper berth where it was warmer still – heat rising and all. The compartment was more spacious than those I’ve known in the U.S. A soft down-filled comforter and a squishy pillow, crisp and clean and white, guaranteed that sleep was imminent.

 

Indeed, it wasn’t long before I was in la-la land. The not-so-gentle rocking and swaying and grinding of the train cars did not dissuade me from slipping into dreamland shortly after my head hit the pillow. However, after what seemed like just a few hours, we were awakened by the porter. We were at the border. I have to state here that unlike the US which had sprung ahead at the beginning of March, the Europeans set their clock one hour ahead on March 31, which happened to be Easter Sunday this year. And to make matters worse, when you enter the Ukraine, you have to set the clock ahead yet another hour as we enter a different time zone. We were losing sleep hours left and right.

 

I hoped we could get this border stuff over and done with quickly. The pillow and comforter were calling me. But two hours later we were still at it. First, the Polish customs came through to ask if we were bringing goods across the border. About fifteen minutes later, the Polish passport control came through and stamped our passports after entering our information into portable computers to insure that we weren’t fugitives from justice – or worse. Then, ensued many minutes of train adjustments. I am told that the tracks in Ukraine are a different size then those in Poland, so adjustments have to be made accordingly. Only two of the cars from Krakow were sleepers. The non-sleeper cars were detached near the Polish border city of Przemysl. Ukrainian non-sleeper cars were substituted and attached to our sleepers. And I don’t know how they got the sleeper cars to fit the Ukrainian tracks. All I can say is, there was a lot of back and forth movement and jostling and metal groaning and creaking and clanging; at times we sped backward then lurched forward. It was a very dizzying experience. And, talk about feeling helpless! Sitting there in your PJ’s, passport in hand because you haven’t been checked in by the Ukrainian control yet so you did not dare to try and sleep, all the while on what felt like a roller coaster at a bad adventure park.

 

I knew the minute I lay down and nestled under the cozy comforter, the authorities would knock on the door. So, I sat on the edge of the bed waiting, clutching my passport. We had to wait until we were actually on Ukrainian territory before their authorities did their thing. Another 20-30 minutes elapsed. Eventually, the Ukrainian authorities entered our compartment. They took our passports. A few minutes later, the Ukrainian customs control opened our door without knocking, peeked in and shut the door. I guess we looked pretty innocuous. I heard dogs barking in the background, but never saw them. Drug sniffers, or something sniffers, I guessed. And why is it that all these figures of authority always wear army uniforms – fatigues and combat types – which only adds to their gestapo appearance? It is comforting to know that a woman “gestapo” enters women’s compartments but backed up by a male “gestapo” – always in twos. But the experience is pretty disquieting and helpless inducing, sitting there in your PJ’s. Everything always seems distorted and a tad eerier at night. When I gazed out the window at the Ukrainian terrain, all I could think of was ‘ghost town’.

Another 15-20 minutes and our passports were returned without a word being uttered. I guess we were done.

 

We tried to go back to sleep, but it was not possible. After all the border stuff was finished, it was already 4:30 AM and we were due to arrive in Lviv at 6:03. The porter brought us tiny cups of coffee and chocolate filled croissants which we gobbled up. All that anxiety sure makes you hungry.

 

We had just enough time to wash up, get dressed and we were in Lviv – 6:03 and it was pitch black outside. The sun wouldn’t rise for almost an hour! So much for springing ahead.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The more things change …….Poland in Transition

March 13, 2013: Completed forty days in Poland. I have begun to assimilate – started attending aqua-aerobics classes at the local spa. A return of snow, ice and temperatures in the 20’s, with a wind chill that feels like the teens, have prevented me from making it to a second class. I checked out the gigantic Aqua Park Center which has year-round slides, a variety of pool activities and special programs for us seniors, but I was overwhelmed by the Disney-like atmosphere and opted to go to the closer and smaller Wroclaw Centrum Spa and Gymnasium – a five-minute walk and six-minute tram ride away.

 

The New Horizon Theater sponsors weekly movies for seniors, in collaboration with the Wroclaw Senior Center. Easy to get to in bad weather, the tram stops near the theater. I’ve seen “Some Like it Hot” and “Passione”, a musical history of the music of Naples, directed by my new idol John Turturro. I look forward to “Cinema Paradiso” next Monday. The Poles love movies, especially American-made. (The stylish lady sitting next to me at this week’s showing was devastated that she had to miss “Some Like it Hot”.) And they do their research. I have learned more about Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis than I ever knew. Cost of movie with a fact-filled lecture before and discussion after, a warm drink and biscotti, is 12 zloty which translates to about $3.80. And a good listening and reading (the subtitles) exercise for my floundering Polish.

 

Poland is still affordable for the American, not so much for the average working class Pole who makes 15-17 zloty/per hour ($5-$6) and, more likely than not, is forced to share his or her living space with friends, family or strangers. It is common for unrelated and uninvolved adults of any gender to share a room. Unemployment in Poland is 14.4%.

 

Changes, in the name of progress – or not, have invaded Poland. Here are some that I have been most aware of.

 

Kiosks, little more than oversized wooden boxes with a corrugated roof, an overhang and a sliding glass window for communication and transferring of goods and money, used to be found on nearly every street corner, painted a universal bright green and yellow so you can spot them from afar. The small interior is jam packed with goods. Here you can buy anything from cigarettes to telephone cards to tram tickets, razors, cosmetics, random snacks and children’s toys, also – shoe laces, nail polish of many hues, porn, small hardware items, magazines and comic books and just about anything you might need at the last minute. And you know that if they don’t have what you are looking for today, they will most likely have it tomorrow. Many of these kiosks are still in business, but in the past few years, little corner stores and chain convenience shops like the Zabka (“Frog”) have sprouted throughout Poland. It’s only a matter of time! A good stiff wind, and stiff competition, and the kiosks could be history.

 

I hope the Bar Mlecny (Milk Bar), a low cost – very low cost – no frills cafeteria-style eating emporium which is a throwback to the Communist era, will never cease to exist. For $2-$3, you can get a wholesome, hearty meal. Choices include home-made soups, pierogi of all types, cutlets, goulash and bigos – a meat and sauerkraut dish. A delicious “surowka” – a beet or cabbage and carrot slaw – and home-made noodles or potatoes – a generous portion – usually complete the meal. Everything is fresh and tasty. Poland potatoes rival the taste of those from Ireland or Prince Edward Island. The Bar Mlecny is great for students and low-income seniors, or anyone who needs or wants a good meal for very little. If you are a fastidious diner, the Bar Mlecny is not for you.

The Polish diet is high in simple carbs, but most Poles are very active so the calories do not accumulate on one’s body as they seem to on US bodies. But, even the Polish diet is changing. Vegetarianism is accepted if not common, and though tofu is still unheard of in the neighborhood stores, it flies off the shelves in the larger super markets. Judgmental eyebrows no longer furrow as they used to when you order “bezmiensne” at a restaurant or announce at a gathering that you do not eat meat.

 

Giving flowers has been a tradition in Poland. Though still popular, the practice is slowly fading. It is customary to always give an odd number. Something about good luck. I once made the mistake of bringing an even number, and couldn’t understand why the glares and puzzled expressions.

Cost of flowers is reasonable. Flowers are appropriate for just about any occasion: the usual Christenings, house-warming events and any celebration, real or imagined. You don’t accept a dinner invitation without a plan to bring flowers – and something alcoholic. You give flowers when you meet a visitor at the airport or train station. You give flowers to your sweetheart just because. These days, I see fewer people carrying the single rose or tulip, held gingerly in the traditional upside down position, sometimes adorned with greenery and fancy ribbons, but more often just held naked in one’s hand, always upside down.

March 8 was International Women’s Day – very popular in Poland. I was delighted to see the streets exploding with flowers. Tulips, roses, daffodils and many other unidentified flowers burst forth from the “Kwiacarnia” (florist). Little old ladies sat on street corners with boxes and bundles of flowers. I spotted upside down flowers clutched in hands of all ages on the streets and in the trams. Janice was given a beautiful yellow tulip by Credit Suisse where she teaches business English. I vowed to keep a fresh flower in the apartment during the rest of my Poland stay.

 

I have not seen the egg man, the farmer who sells eggs and fruit out of his car trunk. I’m hoping it is because of the weather. I have vowed to buy more from him. We have to keep him in business. When he does come around, he backs his tiny car, just a tad bigger than what I consider to be the tiniest-in-the-world car – the Polish Fiat – onto the sidewalk near our apartment, opens his trunk where he keeps his stash of eggs and fruit – the biggest, sweetest apples, sets a folding chair on the pavement and sits there until his products are sold. He doesn’t come often. I imagine he’s busy on his farm.

 

I have not seen the lady who sells local honey on the sidewalk. Also, I’m sure, weather related.

Last week we had temperatures in the mid fifties and the outdoors teemed with people. It was hard to find an empty park bench. The seasonal outdoor markets were booming for a few days, until dipping temperatures and nonstop snow flurries returned. Many outdoor markets set up their wares year round. They shut down only when it pours rain or snow. A rain or snow “mist” does not deter them.

 

Snow days and school buses are nonexistent in Poland. Students walk or take public transportation. If they miss a day because of weather, they have to make the work up. Young people chuckle when they see US school buses in films. On the other hand, it is not considered cheating if a student whispers the answer to another student during an exam. It is a sign of solidarity to help the weaker student so he or she does not get left behind – even in adult classes. Janice has a hard time with this one. So do I.

 

Poland has joined the ranks of the “take-out” or as they call it, the “take-away”. For some time now, it has been possible to get a “doggie bag” in restaurants if you did not finish your meal, but you had to pay a few “groszy” (pennies) for the styrofoam or plastic container. You still do. Today, “take-away” has been expanded. You can order meals to go. And, lately I see people walking around with lidded hot cups filled with take-away drinks. I see these cups littering sidewalks and parking areas. Not a good thing. I also spotted two, not one, but two Starbucks at the old Town Square. Also, not a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

 

I have yet to see pizza delivery to the home. I’m sure it’s coming.

 

 

Public transportation in Poland has improved by leaps and bounds. Train stations and tram stops have moved into the twentieth if not the twenty-first century. When I was in Wroclaw fifteen months ago, the local train station was in the throes of a two-year renovation (it took longer), partly as a result of the post communist boom, but mostly because the city was preparing to host the 2012 Eurosports (Soccer Championships). During renovations, the timetable for arrivals and departures was tucked away in an outdoor corner near the entrance to the tracks. Arrivals weren’t a problem unless you were running late to an appointment, but departures were a different story. Track announcements weren’t posted until 3-5 minutes before departure, causing a mad dash for the train akin to the bull running at Pamplona. You had to stand at the outdoor timetable, sometimes for hours through delays and cancellations, often with frozen fingers and toes, because the public address system announcement was undecipherable. The only people who understood what was being said were those who belonged to a secret club who knew the meaning of the echoing and booming garble. In the old days, those who belonged to the same secret club knew the stops. The rest of us had to rely on the secret society’s benevolence or trial and error. Train travel was stressful and uncertain.

When I visited Poland in 1984, a friend bought me a first class overnight ticket from Warsaw to Krakow. I mistakenly wound up in the second class section and was only discovered when the conductress came around several hours later. In 1984, Poland was still under communist rule although the general atmosphere was changing and members of the old guard were frequently under duress, which only increased their normal bitchiness and demeaning grumbles. I’ll never forget, as I was being escorted into my proper first class seat by the grumpy conductress, a trail of chuckles followed me, chuckles which exuded from my previous compartment mates. They were laughing at me. I was mortified and terrified.

Train travel was no fun in those days. It has gotten better. At least many of the stations have a sign, visible from inside the train, so the astute traveler can make it to the right stop. It’s not as much of a guessing game. And fellow passengers are much more accommodating in sharing the “secret” information. But I can’t say that I have not been affected by the bullying.

Electronic signs at tram and bus stops in Wroclaw are new since my last visit. Not only do they post the stop, they also give you the current time and post the times for all the trams that stop there. Many of the trams and buses have automated announcements before each designated stop. And, they are rarely late. Now the drunken sports fans and revelers have a better chance of reaching their destinations. Me too!

 

Wroclaw has been elected one of two European Cultural Centers for 2016. Hopefully this will bring more innovations.

 

It does my heart good to see growth and progress in Poland. Now, I wish someone would help move the Ukraine into, at least, the twentieth century. Communism was quashed in the Ukraine in 1991. Sadly, I’m told, the leadership has opted for corruption rather than progress.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment