Sunday, August 30, 2020

Kayaks and Pride

 I've had a long week. I'm working overtime and I'm trying to fill out a bunch of legal paperwork (residency permit, drivers license application, and a new lease). Yes, we decided to move apartments, which is very exciting but it also adds one more thing to the to-do list. With all of the busyness I didn't have much going on mid-week, but yesterday was a nice change. 

The Toastmasters went on a kayaking adventure yesterday. Normally when the term "adventure" is applied to a group athletic activity it is hyperbolic, but it was actually pretty apt in this case. In the introduction our kayak guide told us we would need to duck and climb and scoot–not the typical cushy river float. He also was sure to tell everyone that once you were in the kayak, you were in for the full stretch; there aren't any places along the river that you can get out with your kayak. 

We started walking down a pretty steep dusty hill to get to the river edge (well, more of a large creek) and everyone paired off into twos to embark down the narrow steam. Almost immediately there were some bumper boats going on and backwards floats. As was pre-warned, there were a few sections that necessitated getting out of the kayak and pushing, but many people were wearing street sneakers and jeans. Even Cameron, the kayaking expert, couldn't navigate us away from every obstacle.

For a three hour float, it was really fun! My favorite was when we had to climb over and hover on top of a fallen tree while our kayak was pushed below it. At the end we had to paddle upstream on the Vistula for a short way and then were welcomed at the end destination, the Nowa Huta Yacht Club, with coffee and candies. Let's just say I ate a lot of candy...but I found a new favorite–Ukrainian Minky Binky caramels! In addition to sweets, there was also some typical grill foods and wine. As can be expected with the Toastmasters, the food was paired with some speech-giving games, and Cameron even volunteered to stand up and give a speech! In my opinion, he did quite well, but being a native English speaker is definitely an advantage.

It was a fun day, and after six hours in the sun (and a week of overworking) I was tired, but yesterday evening was also Krakow's Pride parade, and I felt an obligation to go. There was a lot of people there, and many varieties of striped flags I had never seen before. I was glad to see how well-attended the event was, especially knowing the anti-LGBT position of the current government. It was a little scary when a small (~200 people?) parade marched around the main square shouting homophobic chants not long after I arrived. Luckily that didn't last long, and there were a lot of police officers monitoring the situation. 

Not knowing Polish, I wasn't sure what was going on most of the time. There was a small stage and a few speakers/crowd ampers and a bit of a production pulling out a long (~10 meters?) rainbow flag. At one end of the plaza there was a drum circle going, which I didn't realize was covering up the sounds of anti-LGBT protesters. Eventually, maybe an hour after we arrived, the crowds started to mobilize into somewhat of a parade and my friends and I shuffled along. It a very slow moving (only half a block in the first 30 minutes) but it was long—it took up two sides of the square and was at least 10 times as long as the anti-pride parade. 

I know it sounds like a lot of people, and it was, but I should be clear, everyone was wearing masks and it felt really nice to see so many people showing up for human rights. 

Starting our adventure on the Dłubnia river. 

Say "hi" to the Toastmasters. We were all huddled up because we had to climb one-by-one over a fallen log. 

Cameron giving a speech to the Toastmasters. 

This was early on in the Pride event and not nearly as crowded as it got, but once the parade got started this made a nice visual (used somewhat like a Chinese dragon). 

This is a good sum of how things are going at work.
Just kidding, but this snip from a recent training made me laugh. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Please Vote

A few months ago Poland re-elected Andrzej Duda as president. None of my Polish friends were pleased with the election results, and my boss called Duda "the Polish version of Trump," except Duda will be around for another five years. Krakow is a very liberal city and so many of the conservative elements of Polish politics don't affect me, but I also was able to ignore many of the effects of having Trump as a president since I was living in liberal Seattle. Don't get me wrong, I was very upset about our first Trump election and I absolutely do not want to be in the same presidential position as Poland in three months.

I should start with the caveat that I know very little about Polish politics, but a few news stories have crossed my path that I think are important lessons to learn from.

Poland is ranked as the worst country in Europe for LGBT rights. Duda ran on a family-first campaign, a big part of which is to make it even harder to live a "normal" life as a gay couple, including constitutional amendments to ban same sex couples from adopting and support of "LGBT-free" communities and municipalities. Earlier this month there was a protest that ended hauntingly similar to the Black Lives Matter marches we've seen in the US: heavy police intervention and violence. The full news story can be found here. But it's not all bad. Those "LGBT-free" free towns have been denied EU funding, and if you've seen anything Polish in the news, you probably saw something semi-positive. A handful of political leaders stood as the LGBT flag in visual protest during Duda's swearing in ceremony. 

When I moved here, I knew Poland was a little iffy on women's rights. Abortion is illegal (with a few exceptions) but at least birth control is legal (but there is no emergency contraceptive) and Poland actually is one of the better countries when it comes to the gender pay gap (but women still make less). Recently, though, I learned that Poland has virtually no sex education, and now Poland is withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty that strives to combat domestic violence. Apparently, the reasoning is that the treaty is equivalent to "blindly denouncing the Polish tradition and culture" and because it "required schools to teach children about gender." 

I know I cannot change the Polish political climate, no matter how much I educate myself or discuss it. Even if I could, I don't feel like it's my place; I am a guest to this country and I really appreciate how welcoming it has been to me thus far. But, I do have a voice when it comes to US politics. For those of you who can, please vote in this November's election so that we don't have a second round of the US version of Duda. 

Please vote, even if it is inconvenient. Oversees voters can request an oversees absentee ballot here!

I attended a women empowerment discussion group this week. One of the table topics was "you and your rights" and it was interesting to hear how women rights vary between countries. 

I really like my international women's groups. I think that my opinions and perspectives have been broadened having regular conversations with people from different backgrounds. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Hello High Tatras

If you want practice saying cześć then go for a hike! 

This was my first proper hike in the Tatra Mountains, the high mountain range which shares the boarder of Poland and Slovakia. It's about 2.5 hours drive from Krakow to Zakopane, which is the cute mountain town that is the primary hub for mountain access from the Polish side. That unfortunately means lots of traffic getting down there and a bit of parking stress. To overcome that stress, Cameron's coworker, Robert, recommended we leave Krakow by 4:30. Well, it's a good thing we did because we had a long day ahead of us. 

Two of my friends came along too, but we split up pretty early on and ended up doing separate hikes. Probably a good thing, since the route Cameron, Robert, and I ended up taking was pretty challenging. Robert planned a 25km route for us which included 1650 meters of elevation, two 2000+ meter high points, and pulling ourselves up rock scrambles with chains. Naturally, the most dangerous climb was paired with a huge downpour and some hail. 

But don't let me complain; it was beautiful! It had all of the elements of what I love in a hike: wildflowers, meadows, looming peaks, countless lakes, plus a few Polish add-ons like mountain huts and ski lifts. The Tatras aren't that big, and you can access any part of the National Park as part of a day hike, but nonetheless they fill up quick! You have to book far in advance to stay overnight, but they are also popular to stop for the bathroom, beer, or some traditional Polish cuisine for day hikers, too. 

Despite it being Friday (for many Polish people it was a three day weekend), there were a lot of people out. From the first peak, it seemed like any direction we looked we could see people trekking about. Unlike in the Olympic National Park where you can go off trail to create your own wilderness route, the Polish national parks are much more restrictive. They mandate that you stay on the trails and swimming in the lakes are not allowed, but it many ways the landscape is more accessible because of the abundance of trails. Also, unlike the Olympics, it's very easy to create a loop which is a really treat. It wasn't as wild as the Olympics, but I would say the Tatras rival in beauty. We will surely be going back regularly. 

These were some steep rocks to climb, especially when wet. 

Luckily the other side of the pass was not as challenging as this, because going up is much more manageable than going down would have been. 

Views from the start of the hike. We started off in the forest but it opened up within about 30 minutes of hiking- another benefit of the Tatras over the Olympics. 

You can see that it was by no means a lightly-attended trail. Even on the more challenging trails were busy, plus this was not as busy as a proper weekend day. 

We were on top of the two pointy peaks (the hill in front and the peak behind it slightly to the left).

Another view of those two peaks. One of the mountain huts was in this little village (not sure what any of the other buildings were used for).

Even though we split up, I think my friends ended up taking this lift later in the day. 

Cameron being a photographer and the clouds starting to darken even more. 

I love mountain streams. 

Another pond and more dark clouds. 

We climbed to this peak, which was the taller one from the earlier pictures. The sign wars of falling rocks and very difficult terrain. 

There's another lake at the bottom of this. The train you can see on the other side is the one we took to get to the other side of the pass. 

Views of the climb up to the first 2000+ meter peak. 

Lake views from the peak. 

You can see that there are trails along most of the ridge lines. 

People hanging up at the peak. 

Views from the top. 

One of the bigger Lakeland the mountain pass in the background. 

Two lakes on the other side of the pass that are part of the Five Lakes Valley. 

Another of the five lakes, including the Five Lakes Valley mountain hut. 

Wildflowers on the way down the valley. It was a lot of downhill and my thighs are very sore today. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Tads and Tidbits

I think it's time for another installment of the little tidbits of fact and culture I have come across living in Krakow for the last few months. 

Every so often my coworkers introduce me to new Polish idioms. These tend to come around after we hear some bad news, but the intensity of the language always makes me laugh. My favorites? "Absurdity carousel" and making a "choice between plague and cholera."

There are a lot of churches, and I see seminary students walking around in priestly robe regularly, but it's the nun-spotting that I love. I always am surprised when I see nuns doing pedestrian activities: dropping off something at the post office, eating ice cream, driving a minivan...ah what a treat!

When I was in a walking tour a few months ago, the tour guide introduced me to the term "Polish briefcase." He told us to keep our eyes open for shopping bags from high-end shops being carried around unnecessarily. Now anytime I see someone carrying around a Marc Jacobs or Prada shopping bag, I try to sneak a look at what's inside...I have never seen those bags actually carrying something from the store they originate from. 

We found this Polish version of the food pyramid- I think it's telling that coffee is included on the model. According to the same tour guide that talked about the shopping bags, Krakowians especially like their coffee and will drink seven cups a day because they are snooty. 

I don't know why, but it seems like Krakow really loves Elvis Presley. Outside of Wawel Castle there is a Hollywood-style "Avenue of Stars" which include's an Elvis tribute and there's a monument tribute to him along one of the popular walking trails near town. I have tried to research why and have not found a satisfying answer. 

Quite a few of my friends are attending university while here, partially because it's so stinking affordable! A two years master's program typically won't cost more than ~8000 USD (total!) and if you are in a PhD program you get paid a monthly stipend. I started to very strongly consider applying for an environmental protection and management masters, but I couldn't quite commit. 

Being outside of Poland for a week made me remember that homelessness is a thing. It's easy to forget because we don't see much of it in Krakow. Apparently, there are just lots of really good resources available–imagine that!

I was in an elevator with a stranger for the first time in a while. In the US, everyone politely looks to the door and ignores the others. In Poland, everyone circles and faces towards the center of the elevator. 

People cook lunch but prepare dinner. Why? Because lunch is typically a hot meal but dinner is more often a smaller thrown together meal: a sandwich or leftovers, for example. Also, it's really common to have breakfast at work.

I didn't notice this before summer came around, but it seems like every time I leave the house there is a big vehicle cleaning the tram tracks. I don't know exactly why it's shown up all of the sudden, but my theories are that summer is more dusty (not really but it's a guess) or the water it sprays on the tracks keeps the metal from expanding (also seems unlikely, but I did not study civic engineering). 

Overall things are going well. Here are some more miscellaneous pictures from mildly interesting things I've come across this week:

Movie showing in the park. It was an American film with Polish subtitles, and from what I could tell you could just pull up a chair and join along. 

Earlier this week there were lots of Polish flags, red and white flowers, and military services going on. No one I know really knows why, but one of my coworkers was guessing that it was for the August 1 National Warsaw Uprising Remembrance Day.

Just another great view of the city- this one from my friend's roof. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Plan G for Germany

Although I had been thinking of this trip as our Germany trip, we actually spent significant time in the Czech Republic and France, too. It was a magnificent trip, and even two parking tickets and a smashed window didn't sour it too much. 

I'm quite pleased at the amount of planning I did. We broke up our driving into six hour chunks to ensure we had time every day (even the travel days) to do something enjoyable. Leading up to this trip, I had reached out to a few elementary/middle school friends who reminded me of their favorite places in Germany, and we tried our best to relive my childhood memories. Here's a brief summary of our trip:

Day 1, Saturday, July 25- Krakow, Poland to Hřensko, Czech Republic

We stayed at a great 8-room hotel in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park. After driving about six hours, we arrived at our hotel and realized we had a great view of the neighboring sandstone cliffs. We left the hotel room again shortly after settling in to set out on a 12km hike to those cliffs and unknowingly ended up at the largest sandstone arch in Europe. 

View from our hotel room looking across to the cliffs we hiked to. 

Pravčická brána, the largest sandstone arch in Europe. Unfortunately the restaurant and arch closed two minutes before we arrived. 

Day 2, Sunday, July 26- Hřensko, Czech Republic to Weinheim Germany
We started the day with a short hike to the river in Hřensko since the hotel's breakfast didn't start until 8:30. We had hoped to reach a waterfall, but we learned when we got down to the river that the waterfall were only accessible after paying either for a tour boat or for access to a gated-off area, neither of which were accessible that time in the morning. No matter, it was still a pretty canyon to walk down to before starting off on another six hour drive. 

Our Airbnb in Weinheim was ideal. It was on a historic street near the old town Marktplatz in a building that dated back to the 16th century. We walked around downtown, enjoyed some spaghettieis, and ventured up to the Schlosspark (a favorite playground and ideal frog-catching pond) before finishing off the evening at Mom's favorite restaurant, Kugelofen. 

Morning light on the river, Kamenice Kamnitz.

We couldn't access the little restaurant space since it was behind a pay gate and it was early morning. 

Our Airbnb for four nights. Every evening all of the neighbors sat out on the shared patio space and conversed over their separate meals. We joined them one evening and learned that at least one of the neighbors, an 86 year old man, had lived in the same house here since birth. 

The Weinheim Marktplatz. Only two blocks from our Airbnb and a great restaurant hub. 

The large lawn at the Schlosspark.

Day 3, Monday, July 27- Mannheim and Heidelberg
A commonly-recommended spot to see was "Buffalo Park." After some bakery treats we set off there to start the morning, and I was pleased to see the buffalos were still there, as well as some boars, deer, and exotic birds. Although it wasn't marked on a map, I knew the old military base was nearby. We drove around a bit and just after I said "we'll try one more street" we ended up driving through the governors' circle (the nicest homes on base). As we drove around, it was obvious that the base had been split up among various German construction companies who were either renovating the existing buildings or bulldozing them to make room for new ones.

We went into Mannheim proper for lunch, but as my parent's are fond of saying, there's not much special about Mannheim. We didn't linger long before heading to Heidelberg for the afternoon. Cameron was much more impressed at the large downtown and the large semi-decrepit castle. 

One of the most base-like views still left: big ugly buildings surrounded by fence. 

Looking up at Heidelberg castle from one of the plazas in downtown. 

Day 4, Tuesday, July 28- Strasbourg, France and Baden-Baden, Germany
Starsbourg was about a 2 hour drive from Weinheim, but since we were already heading that direction for Baden-Baden we decided to start our morning their. I found a self-guided sampling tour, that gave us samples of gingerbread, cheese, pastries, pretzels, beer, wine, and cheesecake, as well as access to some unusual places to discover. After walking around the city for about four hours, we returned to our car and unfortunately found a parking ticket and broken side window. 

We called a Weinheim auto shop and they instructed us to stop by in the morning, so we went ahead and continued on with our plan to go to Baden-Baden. We went to the Caracalla Thermal Spa. No phones were allowed in the baths so I don't have any photos, but it was an odd experience. They were very strict about how many people could be in each pool and many of the smaller rooms were closed off due to Coronavirus. Even after three hours of relaxing, we were pretty worn out so we didn't spend time walking round town, other than to find a restaurant. After dinner, we found another parking ticket...oh bother!
"Little France," the canal region of Strasbourg. 

Our self-guided tour took us to a wine cellar that sits below an old hospital. The oldest wine, dating back to 1472, sits in these barrels. 

An unfortunate thing to come back to, but luckily it was the smallest window and nothing was stolen. 

Day 5, Wednesday, July 29- Weinheim
We dropped the car off with the auto shop first thing in the morning and were supplied with the loaner for the day. Today was dedicated to my childhood town, and stop number one was my old house. The lower neighborhood had grown and there was some construction still going on. The playground about halfway up the street that had been built when my family lived there now looked quite weather worn, but beyond that the neighborhood was relatively unchanged. 

Across the street from my house was the same parking lot, the grassy patch that Fluffy the guinea pig was buried in, and the trailhead that leads into the Odenwald Nature Park. The house looked unchanged, too, except for some newer mechanical blinds. I started crying as I started to explain to Cameron what was behind each window. I could see a lamp and a plant in the office/guest bedroom window, but nothing else gave indication that anyone was living there. We walked around the back and through the fence could see that the backyard had long overgrown grass and weeds giving further indication that perhaps the place was not being used as a standard residence. Nonetheless, I rang the doorbell, but as expected no one answered.

We spent the morning walking around the Odenwald, and then driving to the two hillside castles, and then the evening at the Waidsee, the lake we frequented most in my childhood. Somewhere in-between we went to a favorite ice cream shop in town and Muller, the all-purpose store in town (another of Mom's favorites). I also got to experience my first banana beer at dinner, a German specialty that intrigued me as a child. 

The old house looking the same as it did 14 years ago. We used to jump on our pogo stick on the left side of the building, pretend the gate going to the backyard was a trapeze, and I remember accidentally running my bike into our downstairs neighbor's flowerpots one time. 

A hike from across the street, looking across at the Weinheim castles and the neighborhood that houses my old elementary school.

Looking up from one castle to another. I could see both of these from my childhood bedroom window. 

Evening at the Waidsee. 

Cara and I sitting in the backyard of the house. This lawn is now so overgrown we could hardly see the house from our standing view down below. 

Day 6, Thursday, July 30- Weinheim, Germany to Prague, Czech Republic, with a long detour at Schwetzingen Gardens
Originally we were going to leave Weinheim right after breakfast, but since we weren't expecting the car to be ready until 15:00 we had some extra time to fill. Thanks to a suggestion from my parents we drove 20 minutes to Schwetzingen Gardens, a huge balance grounds filled with ponds, hedges, and statues. The size of them makes them feel quite opulent, and we managed to spend three hours walking through the themed regions of garden space. The last half hour of it, we ended up getting a tour of the Mosque from a friendly German retiree who seemed interested in sharing his knowledge and was perfectly happy to accommodate my imperfect German. 

Right at 15:00 I got a call from the car shop saying the window was ready. Cameron was amazed that we were able to get it done without delay and without excessive fees- hurray for German efficiency! The only thing left for the day was another six hour drive to our Airbnb in Prague. We were so tired by the time we arrive, around 20:45 that night, so we ate some instant ramen noodles and went straight to bed.

Some of the prettier flowers in the gardens, with the pink palace in the background. 

There were also a few smaller older buildings around the gardens. This is a temple of botany, Roman water fort, and an old aqueduct. 

Day 7, Friday, July 31- Prague, Czech Republic
Everyone who has ever been to Prague has exclaimed how it is their favorite city; so full of art and culture. After a day there, I agree it is pretty spectacular. Breakfast was a good indication that we would have an enjoyable day. Per recommendation from a travel blog, we went to La Bottega and had a feast! Coffee, smoothy, croissant, bread with jam and butter, waffle with whipped marscapone and candied nuts, chocolate pudding, and eggs Benedict. It was so good that we ended up going to a second location for breakfast the next day.

Then we set out on a three hour guided walking tour which took us through all of the major sites around the city: the Royal Road, the first cubism building in the world, the Powder Tower, Old Town Square, the astronomical clock, the Jewish quarter, Charles Bridge, and the John Lennon Wall. The only major must-see spot that wasn't in the tour was Prague Castle, which we walked around on our own that afternoon. To get out of the sun, we also went to the Central Gallery and walked through the Dali and Warhol exhibits.

Our walking tour group with Prague Castle in the background. 

A view of Prague, from the castle.