Sunday, May 31, 2020

An Exercise in Gratitude

For the last three months, I have been saying that I've lived in Krakow for six months. Well I finally counted it out on my fingers this week and it's actually been eight months! That realization was paired with a light panic; our original plan was to be here for one to four years, and if it has to be only one year then we are on the sad side of the halfway mark. There are so many things I want to do while living in Europe, and all of those plans can't fit into a four month window, even if there weren't travel restrictions to contend with.

But I've spent too much of late whining. I know I have a really good life, and I could benefit reminding myself of that. That's why I want to draft a list of some of the things I am grateful for. 
  • Experiencing a beautiful city- Krakow has been so fun to explore, and I still am amazed by the cleanliness and precision when I walk around downtown. I love seeing people sitting at outdoor tables in the plaza and learning about Polish history and culture through this city's lens. I especially love that there are so many options for walking routes: riverfront, hilly forest, beautify parks. 
  • A happy childhood- It was the fond memories from my childhood that made me so keen to move to Poland. Other than the time my little sister spat at me, I have very few unhappy memories, and science indicates that kids that are happy are more likely to grow up to be successful adults. 
  • Being able to see a castle from my apartment- This goes along with the first two points, but I love that if I'm feeling pensive I can gaze out at Wawel. It's also not the first time I've lived close to a castle. My from my childhood bedroom in Germany I was able to see three, and I like thinking that anytime I live somewhere new in Europe I will be close to ancient royalty.
  • Loving parents- Mom and Dad probably ought to be at the top of the list, but sometimes things are so good for so long that you forget that it's something to be thankful for. 
  • A caring husband- Cameron would not have moved here on his own, but he scarified his comforts for my wants. He puts up with a lot as my tag-along companion
  • Great in-laws- it's wonderful having a second family who is welcoming and loving.
  • Friendships that persist even when the physical distance is extreme- I have friends that I talk to weekly, and some that I only see every 10 years, and I am grateful for all of them. Missing my friends isn't a strong motivation to move back to the US, because I know those friendships will remain regardless of how long I live here. Note the less, it's extra special that many of those friends are trying to visit me while I live in Poland. 
  • Knowing how to cook- I'm not a mastered chef, but I know that my emotions are stonefly connected to what I eat, so it's nice that I can eat tasty and healthy food without having to rely on restauranteurs to provide them. 
  • Being financially comfortable and stable- We are so lucky to be able to buy what we need when we need it, and not worry that we will have to sacrifice some other necessity. We can afford to be flexible and when plans don't work out we can afford the cancellation fees and move onto plan B.
  • Being healthy and fit- I feel so much happier after exercising, and I especially look forward to our extended outdoor adventures. 
  • People who acknowledge my skills and value- I get frustrated with the stresses of work, but I like that I have always worked with smart, competent people and that my competencies are equally appreciated. 
  • Limited fear for my safety- I cannot speak eloquently to the racism and injustice that the United States is currently contending with, but I am so thankful that I have not every worried that I was going to be unjustly punished or harmed. I feel especially safe living where I do in Poland. 
  • The Happiness Lab podcast- I've only listed to the first episode, but it's the reason I decided to compile this list. One of the messages was that being happy is hard work, because sadness and selfishness can become a comfortable nest that you don't want to leave. 
I am so thankful that I've been able to live here, at least for a little while, and I will be elated if we stay beyond the one-year mark. Even if I don't get to do everything I want, this has been such a wonderful eight months, and I am thankful for the experiences I have had.

I'm working on appreciating little things more. A friend and I found this English book store this week, and it was so cozy and comfortable, and nice and small, and not overwhelming. 

Being charitable is another recommendation from The Happiness Lab to make you happier, especially if it's for causes you feel close to. This week Cameron and I participated in WWU Give and and the TBTLathon.

Find appreciation in the little things- like these goofball pigeons that kept jumping over each other while fighting over some food scrap.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Planning a Polish Vacation

Before moving here, I hadn’t done much vacation planning. Most of our holidays were backpacking related, which fall under Cameron’s expertise, or we were visiting people we knew, so we could rely on our hosts to create our itinerary. The first Cameron-and-Aisha non-backpacking solo trip was our Honeymoon to Iceland, almost exactly one year ago. In that case, we elected to pay a travel agency to plan our trip for us and very little of the traveling stresses fell on our hands. 

During my months as a housewife, one of my self-assigned “jobs” was to plan vacations for us.  I came up with lists of places to show people when they visited Krakow, we had our Slovakian ski trip, and I had done some preemptive planning for my family’s summer vacation to Croatia and my friend’s visit to London. Well, given Coronavirus restrictions my pre-planning may have been for naught, and now I am left scrambling to make vacation plans while working a full time job. 

Poland made the decision last week to expand the boarder restrictions through June 12, officially putting an end to my parent’s optimism that their June 2 flights were going to run. I’m still hopeful my friends’ trips in late July and mid September won’t get canceled, but with each cancellation Cameron and I are left with booked vacation time and no plans to fill them with. As previously mentioned, we were supposed to spend a week in Croatia with my parents in June. There was some hope that Cameron and I might be able to travel within Europe, but the current map of allowable boarder crossing is a huge miss-mash as you cross the continent. Some countries are experimenting with allowing tourism now or will start in early summer, others have preemptively decided to disallow travel until at least November. Croatia is one of the more restrictive countries; they currently don’t allow any travelers but they are “considering” allowing Czech tourists in late summer.

So alas, Aisha and Cameron’s hopes of a solo trip to the Croatian coast were cut off. Now we are left with a week-long period and in need of a plan. Cameron is much more of a home-body than I realized, and would have been perfectly fine with a week at home coding (but it would be for fun, not for work, which would make it feel like a vacation). The prospect of that makes me want to lose my mind, so last weekend was dedicated to vacation planning. 

Having the Poland-only restriction is good for someone like me, who has a hard time making decisions. Unfortunately, when you Google “places to vacation for a week in Poland” most of the results are either: a) road trips going around the country with recommendations of where to stay 1-2 nights at a time, b) recommendations to visit Krakow, or c) very clearly for activities that will not be accessible right now. Coronavirus restrictions are quite impeding, and in somewhat unexpected ways. In addition to the closures, there’s definitely extra anxiety–we know we are allowed to be outside of our house, but there a layer of guilt built into it now. It’s not helped by the fact that we are the only non-Polish tourists anywhere we go. I self-consciously wonder if people are suspicious that I broke the law to get here, and there is no hiding behind the “stupid American tourist” facade that I sometimes take comfort in. 

We’ve experience this in our two long-weekend trips during Coronavirus. The first was an Airbnb stay in the town of Gdansk along the Baltic Sea in Northern Poland. The second was this weekend; we spent two nights in Castle Czocha, close to the intersection of Poland, Czechia, and Germany to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Actually, a short tangent–this weekend after saying I couldn’t understand a man speaking Polish, he repeated the question in German and I was able to help him out! 

What has been nice about both of these weekend trips is the lack of other tourists. We are getting to experience some of the major tourist-heavy spots without having to contend with crowds and lines and traffic. Of course now if anyone I don’t know brushes against me a bolt of health concerns makes me go ridged for a second as I try to seer a reminder into my brain to not touch that part of my clothes until it can be disinfected. Also, I immediately assume someone is selfish and pretentious if they forget to pull their mask up from their neck when they pass by me. 

Overall, the rules are just fundamentally changed; you can’t rely on your former knowledge about travel. For example, up until a few weeks ago you weren’t allowed to stay in hotels but we weren’t sure if Airbnb rentals were okay. And then, if you did stay in an Airbnb nowhere would be open for breakfast and Ubereats wasn’t likely going to have breakfast delivery options. This weekend in a hotel, we were given a card to fill out our breakfast preferences since buffets are not allowed. The card was in Polish, but Google Translator led us to believe that our selected breakfast choices would be delivered at 8am the next day. Well 8am passed, and then 9am before I finally walked downstairs to find out that we were supposed to be eating in the hotel restaurant. 

All of these little concerns and unknowns take away the fun out of traveling, but then again, maybe planning trips is always this stressful and I’ve just never had to deal with it before. It’s exceptionally disappointing having spent hours of research crafting what I hope will be the perfect relaxing/romantic/exciting/unique/fun holiday and it not go perfectly. The next trip we have planned is our replacement for Croatia. Since it was just going to be the two of us, we decided to have a true Cameron and Aisha adventure–backpacking.

Well, it turns out wilderness camping is illegal in Poland. If you want to string along a few nights in the mountains, the best way to do it is to hike up to a mountain hut, which is essentially just a large hostel that can’t be easily accessed by car. Unfortunately, these typically have to be booked a year in advanced, but I thought that we might have a chance booking relatively last-minute thinking that lots of people would have had to cancel their summer plans. It’s true, many people did have to cancel their summer “trekking” plans because most of the huts are closed or have converted their hostel rooms into two-person only rooms and now are doing first come-first serve walk-in reservations. 

Now you many be thinking, that it would be a super bummer to hike all day only to be turned away, but honestly most of these huts are only a one- or two-hour hike away from the closest parking lot, so staying in them doesn’t really give you much of a head-start on your following day’s hike. Regardless, we decided this year was not going to be a backpacking year. 

Instead, we’ve decided on a 7-day kayaking trip in Poland’s northeastern lake region, Masuria. Again, it took many hours of research and emailing tour companies to see if it was even a possibility this year. My preference would have been to join a group tour (to avoid the stress of planning in ourselves), but as you can imagine group activities are frowned upon right now. Instead, we have a plan to rent a two-person kayak and camp along the Krutynia River Trail. I have been assured that we do not have to reserve camping spots and there there will be plenty of food for purchase along the way. I get the sense that outdoor adventure in Poland is a lot more facilitated.

I don’t mean to sound negative, but I am quite worried that based on the anxiety of our weekend trips, our week-long journey to the unknown might be more hassle than it’s worth. I even asked Cameron this morning “will our kayaking trip be worth it?” It’s not going to have any of the adventure thrills Cameron got used to as a raft guide, plus he hates driving but he’ll have to be behind the wheel for six hours each way. His response was “I hope so.” I hope so, too. 
The Baltic Sea, along the Hil Peninsula during our trip to Gdansk. 

As always, exploring new places by bike/run: Gdansk 

One of the channels in Gdansk that drain to the Baltic Sea, historically making it a major port city.

The Neptune Fountain along Gdansk's Long Street. 

Four of the region's "Old Prussian Hags" dating back to at least the 1700s. 

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. 

The Sopot Crooked House. 

Visiting the main beach in Sopot, about 20 minutes from Gdansk. You can see the longest pier in Europe behind Cameron. 

A stop at one of Poland's National Parks on our way to Castle Czocha. 

Waterfall in Karkonoski National Park. 

My first alpine hiking since arriving in Poland. 

A view down into the town/valley from the top of our hike. 

Cameron just landed a snowball at me, which is why he looks so chuffed. 

A mountain hut, similar to what I was describing. It took us about 1 hour to hike here. Even though they aren't housing guests like a normal year hikers could still order some comfort food and beer. 

Castle Czocha, our two-night residence. 

Our castle bedroom. 

View of the lake from our bedroom, Jezioro Leśniańskie. 

One of the grander interior castle rooms. 

Gates that you have to drive through to get into the castle grounds. 

As you would hope, there were some ornate statues and gardens around the castle. 

At the top of one of the castle stairwells. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Trail of the Eagles Nests

Cameron interviews people typically on a weekly basis at work, sometimes even more so. He often dreads the interviews, but I always like listening in to his half of the conversations and then give him feedback afterwards...maybe that feedback is why he doesn't like interviewing much. But, in his last interview, he learned about the Trail of the Eagles Nests.

I mentioned this 188km biking route/tourist trail in my last blog, but since then we did a sheep-dogging adventure along 30km of it. It was a hot day for a run/bike ride; it was high 20s Celsius/low 80s Fahrenheit, plus the section of trail Cameron chose had some elevation, which made for a sweaty ride. The full route bypasses 25 castles and watchtowers in various stages of ruin through south-western Poland. Although the trail officially starts with Wawel Castle (#19 on the map below, and viewable from our apartment), Cameron decided on a route that started outside the town of Bydlin, about an hour-long drive from Krakow.

Map of the full Trail from 

We hadn't realized it before, but an informational placard at the parking lot informed us that we were also along the Trail of the Eastern Front during the First World War. Apparently the cemetery we parked next to was the Bydlin Legion Memorial Cemetery, which is the resting place for dozens of soldiers who died during the Battle of Krzywopłopty. We only looked over the cemetery wall as we passed by so that we could move onto our main highlights: castles.

Within 10 minutes we came upon our first castle- Zamek Bydlin (number 14 on the map, above). We elected to take the short 0.1km detour to climb up to the relatively small stone structure. Along the path we learned that the castle was likely built in the 14th century, but more interestingly it was  used as a shelter during WWI and many of the dugout shelters were still visible. The castle itself was roofless, but still had the primary structure of four walls, some of which stood tall enough to still house window holes. We didn't know it at the time, but this was the most accessible castle that we came across in our three hour adventure.

Forested path from the main road up to the castle. 

Behind me you can see one of the trenches that was dug our for use during WWI battles. 

The castle wasn't big, probably not much more floor space than our apartment. 

Cameron climbing up the castle walls. 

Zamek Bydlin in it's full glory.

It was a long way until we reached the next castle. We were on road most of the time, but the roads we were on weren't always in tip-top condition. There was one gravelly hill I was zooming down and silently willing that I wouldn't get hit in the face by a rouge pebble, or worse, get knocked off my bike by an unforeseen pothole. Eventually we found ourselves on a dirt trail with some other bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. We took a short water, snack, and hiking break to hike up the backside of a tall rock structure that was being ascended by multiple rock climbers on the cliff-edge. Not long thereafter, we were back on paved road and were able to see a looming stone tower atop a tree covered hill.

Of course it makes sense for these castles and towers to all be on top of hills, but it does make it tiring to see each of them by bike. I suppose their elevation is what gives the trail it's name. As we got closer to the tower and it's surrounding patch of forest, we saw less and less of this particular eagle's nest (#13 on the map). We knew we had arrived when we turned into an over-crowded parking lot and saw a large family passing out tickets to climb the tower to their kids. We elected to continue on our way, so we didn't learn much about this castle, but if you want to you can by clicking here

Bypassing the Bydlin Legion Memorial Cemetery on our way from castle #1.

Cruising along some country roads. 

Eventually we made it into a forested dirt path. 

There were lots of rock climbers on the other side of these rocks. 

Hanging out at an unofficial lookout. 

Lots of folks were out enjoying the nice Sunday weather. 

Our first glimpses of the castle- you can just barely see the tower sticking up at the center of the hill. 

We didn't see the tower again until we were leaving; again you can just see the stone structure peeping up over the trees. 

At this point, we began to go off-road so that Cameron could turn our route into a loop and get his milage right. Although Cameron thought we were continuing on to a third castle, he also did not have the castle trail marked on his map so he wasn't completely sure. Looking back at our map and the official trail map, I can definitively say that we did not see any more of the official trail castles.  But that didn't stop us from feeling like we were heading for a third one!

We were mostly sheep dogging through farm land and countryside, but in one of the small towns we came upon a very large fenced-off boulder. Cameron was certain it was part of some castle ruins (it was at least on top of a steep hill), but it seems like just a big boulder to me. I was willing to let him believe it was a castle in the moment, but now knowing we were off-route, I feel justified in my skepticism. 

At this point we were tired. We had been climbing up and down hills for close to two hours and I was starting to day-dream about the homemade chocolate hazelnut butter toffee we had waiting in the car. I also had the optimism of still coming to castle number three, which I had been promised before we set out for this workout. Well, we still had our most exhausting part of the day to come. Cameron's route finding led us through some nice forested walking trails but these trails proved to be especially tiring for runners and bikers because they were fully covered in deep sand. It was very slow going and I had to walk my bike through long stretches because my skinny tires were not cut-out for this sort of off-road experience.

Finally we made it out of the sandy forest back onto a gravelly road which soon took us to "castle" number three/four. Again, I was skeptical, but I parked my bike and we climbed the rocky hill. At least there was another couple at the top and a constructed cross which made me think that at some point there was something important here. We might have stayed longer to watch the rock climbers down below us, but we were getting hungry and were starting to run low on water. We were ready to be done, and now we know to stick to the true route for the next time we go castle-hunting. 

Safety first- keeping my mask on. 

Cameron's "trails" sometimes had me going through some not-so-bike-friendly terrain. 

The big boulder that Cameron thought was castle #3. 

Climbing up to our last "castle" of the day. 

Looking down from that "castle" to some more rock climbers. 

The cross in the background is what make me thing we might be somewhere somewhat official. 

Plus, from the road some of the rocks do look somewhat tower-like. 

Our loop that Cameron planned. You can click on the button to see more details and to check out Cameron's other (crazy ambitious) runs. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Start of Summer

The air is warm, the trees are lush, and most of the daffodils have gone to seed. Cameron is back on his training routine so I'm back to sheep-dogging for tens of miles each weekend. Today we found a new corner of Krakow, and some new lakes to boot.

Like all of the other water ways in this city, you aren't supposed to swim in these lakes, but that didn't stop at least one old guy from doggy paddling through the reeds. In fact, the primary demographic of lake attendees was pot-bellied men in the 60+ range. Some of them were set up on camp chairs and fishing poles, others were oiled up in speedos enjoying the sunny morning. As we moved towards the sandy beach, the median age got much younger, and turned mostly to young families with toddlers splashing with their beach buckets and shovels.

At least two lody (ice cream) shops were open, and another lody truck was getting set up. The boat club along the lake was setting up a dozen mini sailboats and it looked like a squad of kids were getting ready to set out for team practice. I would have so badly like to set down the bike, grab an ice cream, and rent a paddle boat, but Cameron had 16km to complete. I did convince him to take a snack break on one of the many rope hammock swings along the lake.

Tomorrow the adventures continue with a 32km run, likely along part of the Trail of Eagles Nests, a long bike trail that bypasses 25 castles, or check out some of the 200+ historic structures along the Wooden Architecture Route.  Running/biking is a great pace to see the world–fast enough to feel like you've gotten somewhere but slow enough to actually enjoy the views. Plus, we often find little secret trails and unexpected surprises you would never get to by car.

Running by our new-found lake. Zalew Bagry is only 8km away from our house. 

Three of the many hammocks along the grassy lake front. 

I'm sure on a Coronavirus-free weekend this dock would be packed. 

A few families enjoying the sun and sand. 

Kids setting up their sailboats. 

Taking a pause on a hammock swing. 

A second smaller lake with a lot less activity– just two fishermen on the far side. 

We took a random route and came across this little structure on top of a hill. 

A fun little trail to zoom down on the bike.