Thursday, August 19, 2021

Back to America

I'm back in the US, which means that Aackle is no longer in Krakow. This will likely be my last post to this blog, however a new van life-related journal should pop up in the next few weeks. In the mean time, I will be living with my parents in New Mexico for a few weeks, then attending my sister's wedding in Colorado, plus a few personal trips around the state, before settling in Utah for the winter. My primary focus now though, is reacquainting myself to what it is like to live in America.

Upon arrival in Atlanta, the American flag was on prominent display. The only "decoration" on the walls in the customs room were two artistic metal American flags. The image was reinforced in the El Paso airport, where a flag approximately 20 feet long hung from the ceiling in the main entrance way. What else do Americans love? Well, guns of course! Based on the TSA notices, guns are allowed in the airport until you reach the TSA check point...oh dear. 

American is also just big. Big servings, big drinks, big people, big cars. Good thing the gas is cheap, since you have to drive everywhere. I did attempt to walk into Mesilla's small downtown the other evening, looking for ice cream, of course, and there was nothing open. How can a desert town not be serving ice cream at 7pm?! And why are ice cream shops not more common to begin with?

I know I sound like a complainer, but I really did just love Krakow. But there are some very nice things here, too. I do like getting free water at restaurants (although I have to request "no ice" and sparkling water isn't an option), and I went to a pool to swim laps for only $2 yesterday. Plus, it's an added bonus that Las Cruces is the most beautiful I have ever seen it; there is more greenery and bright flowers out right now than any August I can remember. 

There have been some funny things, too. Cameron called me when at the gas station and was in a a tizzy because he couldn't figure out how to pay. He had attempted to pump the gas before making the payment so the pump locked up on him (in Poland you pump first, and then go inside to pay). When he did figure it out, not being able to do contactless payment through him for another spin. To be fair, I was also a bit in my head about paying at the grocery store; I was so used to my Polish store routine that I was certain I would be stuck in my habits (tak, to wszyko; nie, dziękuję; do widzenia) that I would embarrass myself at the register. I managed the payment just fine, but started to spazz when the cashier started to bag my groceries in a plastic bag. 

There's one thing about America that I'm now remembering, and I'm a bit baffled by—Americans. On my first day back I was at the DMV, and immediately after getting in line the young man in front of me started babbling. He got a ticket and was unsure if he liked the insurance company he just chose and he really liked living in Mexico for a few years and he brought a friend along who was waiting outside and...that's a lot of information to learn about a stranger in three minutes. 

Americans also seem overly loud and aggressively friendly. I've heard an enthusiastic "thank you so very much, I really appreciate it!" a few times already. It seems more of an affect than a genuine appreciation. I think in my two years in Europe I learned to tone down my voice and to appreciate the reserved directness of many Polish people. 

Overall, I miss Poland, but I am happy to be here for now. Thank you for reading my blog the last two years, and I hope you'll join me from the Printer from the Sprinter (working title, suggestions welcome).

The view of the Oregon Mountains from the Mesilla Valley. 

It was nice to see all of our stuff had arrived (especially since it cost an outrageous amount to ship it back to the US). Bonus points if you can spot a European license plate in the photo (not our Polish one, mind you).

I find the size of these water glasses to be outrageous! Another strange reminder—American restaurants don't leave a menu at the table after you've ordered. 

Like I said, everything is super green right now! The last time I went to Soledad Canyon it was just rocks with some yellowish-brown brush. 

Seriously, this is a jungle!

Plus, there's lots of water coming down right now. I guess this is now turning into a #NewMexicoTrue add.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

Salt, Glass, Air, and Pinball

We just ended our four week stint of back-to-back guests. I'm learning that my social skills have atrophied in the past two years, and my need for nothing time has increased tremendously. To those who have spent many hours in airports and the money to visit us—thank you! I'm so happy to have hosted you, and I apologize for my particularities. 

There have been some repeated activities across the sets of visitors (Bubble Kingdom, Youmiko Sushi, and Nolio Pizza are top culinary attractions), but I've been quite pleased to enjoy some new experiences. Although I don't necessarily want to make multiple visits, I have a few new recommendations to visitors and residents of Krakow:

1) Most tourists have heard of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It is an easy 30-minute bus ride from my house, and it is only accessible through a 2-3 hour guided tour. I had fairly neutral expectations based on my friends' word-of-mouth reviews, and my expectations went down slightly when we arrived to a chaotic bundle of tents and lines at the Daniłowicz Shaft starting point.

My worries were short-lived, though, when I realized the line for those who had purchased tickets online was only one-person long, and the surface-level bathrooms are free (a big deal since Mom & Dad were swiftly using up my coin stockpile). The tour started punctually, and the four of us (Mom, Dad, Cameron, and me) were herded into a building with 24 other tourists and our smartly-dressed tour guide, Agnieszka. After a brief introduction of the mine (subterranean temperature of 18°C, walking 3.5 km, 800 stairs, 135 meters underground) we began our first descent.

The first 380 stairs down the shaft, brining us 64 meters deep.

Once inside, we walked through a series of tunnels, widened by the modern mine staff and fortified with many long logs. Agnieszka kept us moving but would stop periodically at a constructed display or a statue carved from the "green" salt. We learned about the 700 year history of the mines and its current position as a historic monument. We learned about the miners and horses that were working the miners, and we saw the creative and spiritual outlets the miners created for themselves. Cameron and I even had a little taste of one of the (many) salt walls. 

Most of the displays were a little cheesy, but knowing that all of the carvings we saw were done by the miners made them seem much more impressive. You could tell the age of some by the way they were beginning to seep. 

By far, the most impressive areas were the giant cathedral halls and the underground salt lakes. The halls were filled with intricate carvings and massive chandeliers. Many of the sculptures were backlit and made even more impressive by the shaded light filling the salt structures. The lakes, although not large, were beautiful jade-colored, offset by red wood stairways or white crystalline salt. I handed out groszy (pennies) and we threw our wishes into the water. 

This grand cathedral hall is made even more impressive by the knowledge that this room was fully carved out by hand. 

One of the many Bible scenes carved into the side of the cathedral. The orange-ish light from the center of the work is a lit-up baby Jesus. 

One of the bigger and prettier underwater lakes. 

In addition to the main tour, we extended our visit and walked through the underground museum. The extra hour provided some supplementary information and an opportunity to ask one-on-one questions of Agnieszka. The trade off was that we missed out on a ride up the older elevator, but the extra time and information was worthwhile. Although I don't feel like I need to see the salt mines again, I'm glad I did at least once. If I did go a second time, I might eat in the underground restaurant, just to say I did. 


2) Cameron and I considered visiting the Stained Glass Workshop and Museum once before, but I had a cold and we thought it would be best to avoid close contact with other people. Instead, we walked around the city and did a self-guided tour of their recommended stained glass exhibits across the city. It is worthwhile if you are looking for a way to pass a few hours, but the self-guided city walk was nowhere near as interesting as visiting the workshop and museum.

The first floor of the workshop is used for color decisions and glass cutting.

The upper floor has the ideal light for painting, so that is its primary use. The face on display to the right was our masterpiece.

The studio has been in operation for over 100 years, and we learned about the processes of glass working as we walked through the workshop. As our guide educated us, there were a number of employees actively working on commissioned pieces, giving us a real-time visual of the process. We even got to try our hand at glass painting (which is actually done through the process of removing paint rather than applying paint) on a life-sized face that was cast ofter after it was deemed "too dark" for the final display.

Look at how beautiful those colors are! I also love the Stary Night-esque background behind two of Krakow's most recognizable buildings.

The symbol of the workshop.

The tour ended in a gallery displaying some of the most intricate and stunning pieces of glasswork that I have ever seen. Although I can appreciate Chihuly's skills, I was more impressed with the works of Stanisław Wyspiański.


3) My whole time in Krakow I have lived within a 15 minute walk to the Dobra Atmosfera observation balloon. Every day it goes up and down on a tethered cable, so long as there is no inclement weather, taking passengers 150 meters up. As a delayed birthday present for Cameron, we finally went up.

Views from below.

Views from above.

Wawel castle is of course the most architecturally interesting structure on the near-horizon.

The southernly horizon. Those with good eyesight might spot Tyniec Monestary.

I spy my house! 

There isn't much to say, given that it is pretty much exactly as I expected: a pretty view of the city and beyond. I expect if you go on a particularly clear day you might see as far as the Tatra Mountains, but looking straight down is more exciting for me than the stretching vista. It was a little expensive, especially since you can get pretty good views from the mounds or from climbing one of the city towers, but it was really fun to see our city from a different perspective. 


4) Lastly, the Pinball Museum. Cameron had gone once before, but I had never been. Now I've gone twice in less than a week!

The whole space is just a series of small rooms filled to the brim with pinball machines.

For 50 złoty, you can have unlimited play time on the hundreds of arcade games they have. Most are pinball machines, but there's also Pac Man, Asteroids, a driving game, and some shooting games. The oldest machine they have dates back to the 50s, so it's really cool that they still let you play on it. It's fun to see the evolution of pinball through the decades. The '80s were clearly the peak pinball years, with bells and ramps, and in-game goals. 

This was the oldest game I played. If I remember correctly it dated back to 1955!

Of course there is a pinball machine based on the game Pinball Wizard, which is based on playing pinball. This so happened to be one of my favorite games.

One of the machines had a glass side so you could watch the literal bells and whistles. Brad's playing while Cameron investigates. 

Ryan, another one of our happy guests, searched online for the best pinball games. Quite a few of the top rated ones were available here. 

This 1995 game was my favorite...maybe that's because my score was over two billion. 

Having an unlimited pass really helped reduce the stress I normally get at arcades of not wanting to waste my money on a game that I won't like or will immediately lose. It also allows you to play a ton of games, or to play the same game a few times in a row so you can better appreciate the nuances of the game play; I even got to enter my initials to the leader board for one of the games! This was a lot of fun, and I wish I had been going more often while I lived here. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Nowa Huta: An Ideal Communist City

Nowa Huta (literally translates to "new ironworks") is a district of Krakow, but was designed to be a separate city. Before construction started in the 1950s, the area was mostly just agricultural land withs some sparse villages sprinkled throughout. Since the end of communism, it has stayed as a semi-desirable neighborhood, especially for those who want affordable housing with lots of parks and parking. It was, after all, designed to be the ideal community.

Our walking tour started in Central Square, from which the pentagonal blocks unravel. The shape was thought to be the best protection against nuclear warfare, and for additional protection many of the buildings have sniper walls built onto the roofs. Each segment forms its own self-contained fortress, with everything you would need to survive in case you were blocked in: a grocer, some greenery, a bomb shelter...

The first layer of Nowa Huta was hastily constructed, in an attempt to prove that it could be done. Plus, the Soviet Union needed steel, and the residents of Nowa Huta were expected to produce it in the nearby Kombinat—the steelworks company that was also newly constructed in 1954. Due to the haste, culture and beauty were left off of the checklist of new city necessities. There were a few "decorations" on the archways and columns, but for the most part the buildings all were stereotypical Soviet Bloc concrete slabs.

With each new decade, there seemed to be a new leader of the "city" (which was quickly downgraded to be just a sub-district of Krakow) and a new set of ideas of how Nowa Huta should be designed. As you move further from the center, the architecture changes and you start to see the inclusion of some of the initially overlooked items: parks, art (i.e. statues of communist leaders), a restaurant, a theater, and (towards the end) some churches began to be allowed. 

In 1989, the bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin was dismantled in a protest, and in the same year Communism officially ended in Poland. The continued construction of Nowa Huta left the area in debt and with a need of a cultural shift. Many of those working at Kombinat were left looking for work. It took until the time Poland joined the EU in 2004 before things were relatively stable. 

These days, many of the street names have been renamed to honor modern idols (like Pope John Paul II) and the steel plant was purchased by a foreign company and now employs ~40,000 people. The place that was intended to be a cookie-cutter model for many future cities ended up being quite unique; it is only one of two planned socialist settlements ever built. In some ways it succeeded, as a large portion of the population who lives have been there for decades and are now, in their retired years, enjoying the benefits of the community that never quite came into fruition during the 40 years of communism in Poland. 

This mural shows the outline of current Nowa Huta. The dark outline of the pentagon shape was from the first wave of architecture (starting in the mid-1950s). 

Central Square is literally the square at the center of the mural, above. It is also where we started our tour.

Just on the other side of the street from Central Square is this large field; a visual representation of what Nowa Huta was built from. 

Some of the more decorative early buildings. The regularly-spaced square blocks of concrete at the top of the roofs on the right are protection for snipers. 

Inside one of the many identical city blocks. These were self-contained and fortifiable. Spying on your neighbors was encouraged, as evidenced by the building's shape, and the communal laundry lines.

A bomb shelter was located within each block. The pink building at the back is part of a new batch of construction from the 1960s. 

Restauracja Stylowa (literally meaning "stylish restaurant") was the first restaurant in Nowa Huta. 

The final stop on our tour was a beautiful church, Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland, which was built in the the '60s/'70s. It took a while before the communist government approved the construction of a church, and those asking for it were told that they had to fund it and source their own materials. The result is perhaps the most stunning church in Krakow.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Scooter Madness

When I first moved to Krakow in October, 2019, the new electric scooters were the talk of the town. They had newly started to litter the sidewalks, and city regulators implemented no-ride zones in December, 2019. "Thank goodness," all of the locals said; it's a little unsightly having bright green Lime scooters sprinkled in front of the majestic St. Mary's Cathedral. 

Despite the restrictions, more and more brands are biding for part of the market share. A few are pretty beefy looking—with solar charging phone stands and suspended wheel bases—but most are just for fun. Outside of Old Town, it's pretty clear to see where the tourist areas based on how many scooters are piled around. The river is the worst. The scooters fall over onto the walking path, and it's not uncommon to see some handlebars sticking out of the water. The older models have been around long enough that they're starting to break down, and every so often I'll see a disconnected kickstand or one that has been split in two. 

It's a fairly eco-friendly form of transportation, and less work than riding a bike. Just about anyone can ride them, but they aren't available to everyone. Kids under 10 aren't supposed to ride outside of residential areas, and 10-18 year olds are supposed to have a bicycle card or modified drivers license (both methods of proving kids have learned the rules of the road). I'm guessing that rule is broken just as often as the rule that it's only supposed to be one person per scooter, but you'll spot two, three, or even four people crammed on sometimes. 

I've ridden the scooters a few times: once just for fun, once because I missed my bus, and a few times because I simply wanted to get somewhere more quickly or I didn't want to carry my groceries home. They're quite accessible to people; just yesterday I saw a woman in her late 60s riding one and mean-mugging the kids she zoomed by. I'm thinking of taking my parents on a scooter tour when they visit next week. Delivery folks pretty commonly own their own and use that as their primary get-around. 

The signs that Krakow is a young, hip city: electric scooters and graffiti. 

It's odd to see the (typically) green and white scooters offsetting the old brick architecture.

They can look a little intimidating, like a little scooter gang. I find myself sometimes creating personalities and narratives for them.

Like these ones, trying to keep you from trespassing on their turf. 

Or this bully, who got in a fight with his friend, and pushed him to the ground to prove his dominance.

Recently, the city has started marking off special scooter parking. They look very tidy lined up in the mornings.

But by the evening they look a little haphazard. 

On one of my morning runs, I caught this van dropping off a massive delivery of newly charged scooters for the day's riders.

Cameron didn't want to go all the way home after a long run, so he took a scooter for the last few kilometers.

Plus, it's pretty nice to zoom along the river (even if it is somewhat congested with scooters).

Most of the scooter apps show you a map where all of their scooters are smattered about. The reservation system is a new feature.

And now, an ode to the fallen scooter: