Thursday, January 16, 2020

Aisha the Ambassador

It has been a very social week for me; every day I have met up with at least one person. You could say I'm living my best housewife life.

On Saturday my friend Kriti invited me on a bus trip to some Slovakian thermal baths–a real treat, especially since we were hanging out with her Polish mother-in-law and five of her retired girlfriends. Even though I didn't understand what was going on around me a lot of the time, I could  tell this was a group of ladies that know how to have fun. Although my friend and I were the youngest on the bus by at least 25 years, we definitely could learn a few things from the other tour-takers about how to party. Not only did the whole bus unload for a pit-stop at a Slovakian liquor shop, but everyone was strongly encouraged to take a shot of cherry liquor before getting back on the bus for the trip home. When I told my friend that I can't wait to be retired, she pointed out that I basically already was since I wasn't working and was already hanging out with the retirees.

Bumble BFF has been going well, and I regularly match with other women in their 20s who are new to Krakow. I don't have a way to compare friendship online dating to traditional online dating, but overall I've been disappointed in the lackluster commitment in my conversations with most people. But there are still some hidden gems! On Monday, I had my second in-real-life meetup with someone from the app. Clara, a French woman who moved here with her Polish boyfriend after living in Japan for a year, just arrived in Krakow last week. We had lunch at a not-very-Mexican Mexican restaurant followed by some Portuguese custard pastries. I think she was happy to have someone sharing brand-new-to-Krakow advice and I enjoyed having information to share. With any luck, we'll be meeting again next week.

After lunch I had to rush home to change into my running gear because I had a speed-walking date with another woman I met through the "Girls Gone International" Facebook group. As we hoofed it around Planty Park and along the river we talked about traveling and the importance of having a social life. Saba also isn't working but I got the impression she had sought-out the housewife life a little more deliberately than I had. During this one-year move to Poland, she and her husband are hoping to visit virtually every European country and have already hit 10 or 12 in their first four months. She definitely seemed like someone who likes having a purpose (planning trips, organizing women's meet-ups, and walking with a purpose) and she was quick to give me suggestions on how I could entice Cameron to travel more with me. Although I'm not on her level yet, I could see myself after a few years of not working stepping into her shoes as a primary organizing force for international women.

Tuesday afternoon, Anna, the woman who had introduced me to the rabbit shelter, invited me to her flat to drink tea and meet her rabbits. I was very excited to meet the two fluff-balls that she posts on Facebook all of the time, and was so touched that someone whom I had only met once was willing to let me into their house. Over the course of two hours we talked about rabbits, books, and what demands we put on people we are in relationships with. It was reassuring to hear someone else say that we need lots of friendships so that we are not overly-reliant on just one person. In our first month here, I know I was overly-reliant on Cameron, but I'm hoping that some of that socialization-pressure is receding now.

This week has also had the now-standard interactions: my weekly Toastmasters meeting and joining people at the rabbit shelter. We're also in the process of registering the car in Poland which adds another layer of demands and chores. Wednesday was so full that I was ready to make instant ramen noodles for dinner! Luckily I talked myself out of that, because if I start succumbing to microwave dinners now what will my life deteriorate to once I start working? But you've already ready about my staying-busy woes.

Within my new-found social network, I've realized that I am an ambassador to the United States. My new friends are from everywhere except America it seems: Poland, India, France, Dubai, Russia, Pakistan... It's clear to me that the group I've found myself in is made up of strong-minded, confident women who lean heavily in the "feminist" direction. It makes sense, since I think it takes a fearless self-assured person to agree to meet a stranger whom you've only briefly talked to over the internet. Breaking it down to that simple logic makes it sound absurd that I keep agreeing to these meet-ups, but me and all of my new friends and acquaintances agree that Krakow is so safe. When you search Google for "safety in Krakow" one of the only recommendations is to be mindful that there are horse-drawn carriages around Old Town. Although we all agree we would only do this sort of meet-and-greet in Krakow, I get the impression that most of these women would have the same chutzpah no matter where they lived.

Perhaps it is that excessive self-confidence that has led to a number of people to ask me to set the record straight on American stereotypes. Often, the inquisitor starts with something mild, like "is it true you need a car to live in the US?" As a once-aspiring diplomat, I always caveat my response  saying that the US is a big country with lots of different sub-cultures and that I can only speak from my experiences, which have mostly been in liberal cities...but yes, most people would agree that having a car is essential and that's why the driving age is only 16. After a little conversation about how that person would never want to live somewhere that was so walking-adverse they move into the next question.

We often go through a variety of topics: why Americans are fat, how dependent Americans are on their laundry dryers, that American's don't travel, and why Americans need to flaunt everything, even their dish washer and refrigerator (unlike the European ones which are smartly camouflaged into the kitchen cabinets). Presumably, after I've proven myself to be sufficiently trustworthy and open-minded I get thrown a zinger. Lots of them circle around racism and sexism, however my favorite has been "is it true that child marriage is legal in the US?"

Another common topic that comes up are women's opinions of men. I'm sure Cameron would hate knowing everything I share about him to these near-strangers but it is all part of the initiation process. A common bonding topic is pridefully complaining about how much better we women are at meeting people, making plans, and coordinating schedules. I've been recommended by multiple women that we set up a "play date" for our male partners. I think that most of us are here because of our partners for one reason or another (mostly their jobs or their family and citizenship) and we want to prove that we still are powerful and have control over our lives. Also, feminism has a lot of momentum right now and even though many of us are committed to traditional heterosexual relationships, we want to prove that we are allies for the good fight and get reassurance of that during these one-on-one mildly taboo discussions. It's come up so regularly that I started to second guess if I'm worthy of being part of these conversations, but after taking a quiz from I was assured that I am a "full blooded feminist" even though in some instances I'm "being held back by society's constrictions."

I'm a little amazed by how many like-mined open people I have found, despite the numbers cultural backgrounds at play. Although Poland as a whole has conservative-leaning politics it seems Krakow has harbored a safe space for outspoken liberal 20- and 30-somethings. I'm also quite smitten with how diverse of a friend group I'm developing and am starting to get more comfortable asking people about their culture and family beliefs. I'm learning so much about the world! I used to think that I was fairly worldly, but I realize I was only comparing myself to car-dependent non-traveling Americans.

The Slovakian liquor store crammed with all of the Polish bus-riding tourists. 

Looking over at the ski slopes from the thermal baths. 

There are so many more varieties of pasta shapes here; this is only half of the aisle! I know there's no mention of this in this week's blog but I find it generally delightful. 

A foggy morning in old-town.

Meeting Anna's big bunnies. 

Morning frost along the river. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Things Make Me Happy

With all the runs I've done the last two weeks, it feels like I am preparing for a marathon! I promise I'm not (there's no way I'd ever do that!) but Cameron is training for a 50km run. Because I hate feeling left out, I join him for the first 1-2 miles and then turn around while he finishes the distance required by his training plan. However, while he gets to explore more places with each increase in milage, my inability to keep up means I'm mostly running the same stretch of river over-and-over. But not for long! The packages we shipped from Seattle (finally) arrived and now I have my beloved bike with me, which means I'll be "sheep dogging" (riding my bike besides Cameron as he runs) in no time!

The benefit of having a three-month gap between packing up our things and unpacking them again means there are lots of fun surprises in the unwrapping! I remembered that there would be a few boxes of clothes and a few framed photos, but I had forgotten about packing some wedding-gifted oven mitts and Cameron's 3D-printed "pass the pigs" game. I had forgotten what a treat it is to chop vegetables with good-quality knives and how happy it makes me to walk into a room filled with art. One of the few books we packed was Treasured Polish Recipes which I'm sure we will make good use of; in addition to using it as a cook book I anticipate it will come in handy as a reference before we go out to any future Polish restaurants.

Of course there are a few things that we didn't truly need to bring, and I had to laugh at us for thinking they would be vital for international living. Cameron takes the cake by packing lightbulbs  and a single spare shoelace (that does not match any of his currently in-use shoelaces), but I am not blameless for I had to waste valuable closet space on a series of shoes and dresses that I know will not get used more than once a year, tops! Although our closet is quite spacious, we don't have the storage space we used to have in Bellevue and the drawers we do have are filling up fast. Now that we have the car, though, an IKEA trip is in order. That is, once we go through all the steps of insuring the car, converting it to European standards, and registering it.

Yes, it seems our car troubles are still ongoing. I'm already looking forward to selling the car before we leave Poland so we don't have to go through the same shipping-woes when we return to the United States. Even though our car is physically here, we can't drive it yet. We'll even have to use a rental car for our upcoming Slovakian ski trip, assuming we can't get through all of the registration steps over the next two weeks. Also, someone decided it would be funny to put huge Seahawks stickers on the rear-view window, so I'm a little embarrassed to drive the car through Europe at the moment anyways.

Nonetheless, it's been a good week!

Monday was Three Kings Day (also known as Epiphany). To celebrate, Cameron and I joined a swarm of people outside of the Wawel Cathedral as everyone organized themselves for the red procession. In addition to the official groups of volunteers and dressed-up parade leaders, many people wore festive paper crowns. Lots of children had on their royal capes and accompanying wooden swords. The overall parade was amazingly well organized given the number of civilian participants, largely due to the strategically-placed speaker-carrying volunteers. We elected not to buy one of the songbooks since we knew we'd be unable to sing along anyways, but we were definatley in the minority of onlookers.

We didn't watch the procession go all the way to the main square because I had to leave for rabbit shelter training! I loved hanging out with the bunnies so much on Christmas Eve that I signed up to be a more permanent volunteer. I was so pleased to see that my five favorite big babies were still there. I have to shadow other volunteers a few more times before I can go on my own schedule, but hopefully this is a fun way to spend my free time.

The longer I'm not working, the more things I find to do. In addition to the rabbit shelter, Toastmasters, and another evening watching an English speaking stand-up comedy show (which cost less than $2 and included a free shot), I also went to a ukulele and sing-along club. It definitely is not something I would have gone to ordinarily, but a college friend of mine recommended I meet up with her ukulele-playing friend who lives in Krakow. I can't sing well so my sing-along skills don't contribute much to the event so of course now I'm thinking I need to start learning to play ukulele...ojej! Now that I've got some art supplies too I'm going to be a real renaissance woman!

The Red Procession starting outside of Wawel Castle on Three Kings Day. 

Some traditional Polish dress and kids dressed up like angels. 

So many people!

Look at all of those cute crowns.

Rabbit shelter training. 

Morning views from one of my runs. 

Wawel Castle on the left as the sun rises on the right. 

Just a few boxes can make me so happy.

Tuesday evening ukulele club that meets in a Hawaiian restaurant in the Jewish District of Krakow- I love it!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Holidays...or Holiweeks

The holidays definitely lived up to my expectations but they are not over yet! It's hard to segregate Christmas, New Years, and Three Kings Day, especially when there are multiple mid-week holidays in a three-week span. This year, especially, it seems like a lot of people took time off of work from December 23-January 7, and even though I'm still not working I also got caught up in the timeline. So I am sorry for not writing last week, but let me tell you about my holidays!

December 23rd was technically a working day, but like I said, I think most people opted out of it. Cameron decided to put himself on call for the week so he was home for the day, but I put him to work! Monday became a chores day, as it was the last day to do grocery shopping until Friday and we had to clean the house to be Christmas-ready. I also had my first prepared Toastmasters speech that evening so I was trying to recite the speech in my head most of the day. 

Not to toot my own horn, but I know I'm pretty good at public speaking, but nonetheless I was quire nervous. I always get anxious before any sort of public performance, but this time I was extra on-edge. Not only did I arrive at the meeting second-guessing my self-deprecating topic selection, but I also was asked last-minute to be the grammarian, which basically means I had to listen for grammatical errors and report on them at the end of the meeting. Oy vey! Luckily my speech was early on, so I could focus on just one task for most of the meeting. During my speech I went into a bit of a fugue state and don't remember most of it, but it must have gone well because I received the "Best Speaker Award" at the end of the night. It was the confidence boost I needed to finally opt in as a proper member–happy Christmas to me!

Cameron and I were both looking forward to Christmas Eve. Although we didn't have a traditional Polish celebration we had a very Cameron-and-Aisha day. We left the house around 10am to walk an hour to a rabbit rescue shelter. We didn't really know what to expect, but the woman who greeted us, Anna, was super friendly and equally rabbit-obsessed as we were. She and her daughter (maybe around eight years old) had tea and cookies for us and basically asked that we just hang out with the rabbits to help socialize them. There were about 15 rabbits there, and my absolute favorites were a group of five siblings, two females and three males, who were the biggest baby rabbits I had ever encountered. They were all a dark black-and brown color, their bodies were the size of Monka's (so big), but their huge ears indicated that they probably would still double in size! They were so rambunctious and very willing to crawl on top of you in hopes of treats or escape. If we were allowed to have pets in our apartment there is a very good chance we would have five new bunnies. 

For the evening we got dressed up and walked 20 minutes to a nice restaurant in Kazimierz. Because of our outfits, the price of the meal, and the overall ascetic of the venue, I felt pressure to have a really nice time and to be throughly engaged in conversation the whole evening, but unfortunately service was pretty chaotic so it seemed like most of the guests were on-edge and not really enjoying their night. Cameron and I also were a little anxious, since it was really hard to track down a waiter to take our drink orders, but once food started coming it was a little easier to relax. There were six pre-set courses (well, seven for us since they brought us one of the courses twice): salmon with a cream spread and a cracker, pickled herring with trout caviar and crawfish cream, a mushroom and pasta soup, a beet and pierogi soup, an entry (I got breaded carp and Cameron had some sort of beef dish), and lastly a walnut and sesame strudel. I was stuffed by the end, and was very thankful we weren't trying to hit the 12-dish mark for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve.

In all of our walking around that day, I was surprised at how many shops and restaurants were open. I had been given the impression that the whole city shuts down for three days with almost no exceptions, but we could have easily gone grocery shopping before 16:00 and I'm not sure if dinner reservations were necessary based on some of the conversations I overheard at the restaurant. Apparently the post was also open and by some Christmas miracle the package from my parents arrived on Christmas Eve so we got to hang Christmas stockings and went to bed in matching Christmas jammies. 

Christmas morning was pretty traditional. We started by opening presents and then made Santa pancakes. My mom always makes a cranberry sauce and whipped cream, but we had a apple and cherry sauce instead based on available fruit here. The next few hours were mostly filled with bad holiday movies on Netflix. As you'll soon ready, there was a lot of Netflixing this holiday, and  throughout the month of December I'm pretty sure I watched at least a dozen Christmas movies and series. My favorite? A Norwegian series about a woman trying to find a boyfriend to bring home to her family–"Home for Christmas."

The day wasn't all just moping around; we also were hosting a Christmas fondue party! In addition to the cheese and chocolate fondues, we also were baking bread, baking cookies, and chopping all sorts of fun thing to dip into the fondues so the kitchen was in high-demand throughout the afternoon. I was quite proud of the table setting and beverage display, but my cheese fondue wasn't quite right. Since cheese fondue is definatley not a Polish dish, I never found kirschwasser and my cheese mix had some substitutions. Also, cheese fondue is probably not the best meal-choice when inviting two vegans for diner, but my friend Kriti brought her own vegan curry and the chocolate fondue was vegan so everyone got to participate in the dipping fun at some point. It was nice to have some friends over and do something to make Christmas feel like a proper holiday. One day I hope our fondue parties extend to the size of my parents' but for now, six is the max our dining room table can hold so we were at a very cozy capacity!

Unfortunately, as we were going to sleep Christmas night I turned to Cameron and predicted that the tickle in the back of my thought might turn into a full-on sickness. In the morning, I found out I was right. It was no surprise since many of the people I had been interacting with that week were getting over colds and I suppose timing was ok; we didn't have any plans we had to stick to, there were still plenty of holiday movies to watch, and we had a cupboard full of hot beverages to drink.  Even so, I'm bad at staying still so Cameron led us on a walk to Krakus Mound and Kamieniołom Liban–a rounded look-out hill next to an old quarry with some rusted mining buildings built in. 

Friday Cameron went back to work, and I didn't leave the house once. The walk had worn me out and I was feeling much worse than the day before, but Netflix and tea were still there to comfort me. Despite still feeling ill on Saturday, I was feeling even more antsy after a day of bedrest. Cameron thought I looked too sick to go to a museum, but he agreed to walk around town on a self-guided stained glass tour. Of the 12-or-so recommended stops, we found maybe ten of them, but we also found a great outdoors shop and some really beautiful churches. For the most part, Cameron and I had been too nervous to go into the churches even though we'd been told about their beauty, but it being Saturday afternoon gave us confidence that we wouldn't be interrupting worship and plus there are so many visitors in Krakow for Christmas that we could always pretend like we were just standard dumb-American tourists. Luckily, we didn't have to play that card.

This week (starting on December 29th) has mostly started like any normal week. I went to Toastmasters on Monday, and Tuesday was mostly filled with chores. I've gotten a bit braver with my explorations and am trying to branch out of the routine I've started to build for myself and find new shops. I'm thinking about giving myself a challenge of seeking out a new obscure item every week just to see where I end up in my search for it! This week I found a huge department store just a few blocks from our apartment that I had somehow overlooked for the past three months and today I happened upon three different arts-and-crafts stores. But going back to Tuesday, even though it started off fairly mundane, it was of course New Years Eve (aka Sylwester). 

I knew Cameron wasn't particularly looking forward to a night spent with drunk strangers, but I was excited to dress up and dance in proper Polish style! We left the house around 20:20 (happy 2020!) and tried to catch a peek at what was going on in the main square on our way to Klub Re. Then answer was, not much, because apparently even the city-sponsored partying doesn't start until 21:00, but there were already people I knew at Re by the time we arrived. Klub Re is probably not a place I ever would have found on my own, despite it's proximity to the main square, but it was a very cool underground brick building with multiple smaller rooms and bars, tons of table space, and a room set up as a dance floor. Until dancing got started, we chatted and drank with the people I knew from Toastmasters and Open Coffee. I was so pleased that in a club of 200 people, I probably knew close to 20 of them–quite the accomplishment for having only lived in the country for three months!

Somewhere around 23:00 dancing started to pick up. There was a super fun eclectic mix, and the all-time favorite was some sort of Polish polka-pop called "Prawy do Lewego"- it was great! Gabor, if you are reading this, you did an awesome job of putting together a fun night! At 23:45 an announcement about the time was made and everyone started to seek out their coats and head to the square. We weren't on the side of the square with the performance stages set up, so I didn't see if the city had a special countdown going, but we were happily squished in with thousands of other people counting down to the new year. Although the city stopped doing a fireworks show a few years ago (they replaced fireworks with confetti in attempts to keep the air a little cleaner) there were plenty of fireworks to be seen. Lots of folks just brought there own and were shooting them off while in the middle of the crowd. It's the kind of fun mayhem I expected of a European new year, and so far, I haven't heard of anyone getting hurt. 

This year it has been hard to decide on resolutions, since I don't want to limit myself. I want to be open to the experiences that Poland has to offer and I don't want to turn down an opportunity because it doesn't fit within my rules. Typically, if I have a resolution I want to shoot for, I would have already been thinking about it for weeks or months, but this year I didn't officially decide on my New Years resolutions until January 1. For one, I'm going to do active Polish practice everyday, even if it's just a five minute lesson on Duolingo. Going to the store and doing day-to-day tasks doesn't count- it has to be some sort of exercise-based practice. Secondly, I want to be more appreciative; I've gotten into the habit of complaining and I want to be actively thankful for all of the good things in my life. Yes, things are challenging at times and I can be both board and frustrated, but I have a really awesome life filled with great people and super exciting opportunities and I want to be in-the-moment appreciative of all of those things. If I don't say it enough, thank you for being a part of that.

New Years day itself we didn't do anything particularly special, although I did feel like a show-off going on a run, but it was nice having Cameron at the house for another mid-week day. He's at work again today and tomorrow, but we have a three-day weekend to look forward to. Happy Three Kings Day everybody!

Cameron with three rascals.

Two more of the long-eared baby bunnies. 

So many rabbits!

Christmas Eve stop at Good Lood. 

Thanks Mom and Dad for the Christmas stockings!

Christmas Eve dinner menu.

Cameron looks so nice for Christmas Eve dinner. 

Christmas Eve on the River.

"Santa pancakes"

Cameron, Maciej, Kriti, Ashlin, and Sharon for Christmas fondue party.

Krakus Mound

Kamieniołom Liban, as seen in Shindler's List.

Stained glass window inside of St. Mary's Basilica. 

Krakow getting ready for Sylwester. 

Klub Re.

Dancing at Klub Re.

Happy New Years!

A new discover on our New Year's Day run. 

Toastmasters meeting awards. 

Happy Christmas Eve!