Saturday, October 31, 2020

Mummies and Vampires

This is my first (and only) Polish Halloween since last year we actually were in Seattle. Cameron and I are starting the day off by watching Poltergeist, baking a pumpkin pie, and eating peanut butter M&Ms. Not that Halloween is much of a Polish holiday, but still there were a few shops in the mall selling small costume pieces, a few produce stands sell larger carving pumpkins (not that I've seen any jack-o-lanterns), and my Toastmasters club is even encouraging people to dress up since we have an online integration party tonight. 

There are two other holidays this time of year instead- All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. They are somber days to visit your your buried loved ones, although the government just announced yesterday that cemeteries will be closed this weekend to avoid unnecessary Covid spread. I haven't heard if the St. Casimier Church 's catacombs would be open on All Souls Day for the annual viewing of Krakow's mummies. 

That's right, Krakow has about 200 mummies. There was once about 1000 but apparently once they started opening the crypt to the public all of the breathing created enough atmospheric change that many of them started to decompose. Now, they limit the visitation to one day a year and I want to go! 

I might be getting some of the facts wrong, but it was late at night when I heard them. A few friends and I went on a free walking tour Thursday night. In the spirit of American Halloween we set out at 20:00 for A Walk with the Dead. Yes, there were ghost stories and and historical lore, but you will have to come visit me and take the tour yourself to hear all of the tales. I'll just share one more of my favorites. Again, apologies if these factoids are at all inaccurate. 

Early on in the tour we pondered why there are 100+ churches but only ~3 cemeteries in Krakow. Well,  sounds like most of the open spaces, other than the main square, were cemeteries that got covered over by the Austro-Hungarians at some point in the city's history. Most of the bodies were removed before renovations, but not all of them. The ones that were left were often buried 20 feel down rather than the standard 6 feet. Why? So they could wake from the dead.

These bodies were not only buried deep down, but also in strange orientations: heads between their legs, stakes in their skulls, and stones in their mouths. These were vampire burials. The modern day word, "vampire," likely comes from the combination of the Slovak word Wurdulac and Polish word upierzs. Who were the vampires? Likely people who suffered from acute anemia, a blood disorder that makes you very sensitive to light, red eyes, and a general discomfort that can sometimes be alleviated by consuming raw flesh. Before modern medicine, these people were outcasts of society, living on the edges of society and only coming out at night. Since it's a heredity disease sometimes whole families lived like this. They probably were only seen out of the corner of another's eye snatching up small animals or livestock and eating them live. 

Another highlight of the night- I got to share a favorite joke from middle school, so I will leave you with the same: two grave robbers dug up Bach's grave after hearing he had been buried with heirlooms and riches. When the open the grave they found him sitting up with a lit candle and erasing his compositions. They were startled but had the wherewithal to ask "what are you doing?" He responded, "I'm decomposing."

We started the tour at St. Mary's Basilica. This little square we were standing in is one of the paved-over graveyards where vampires were found. 

Those who were being temporarily punished (either for a night of drunkenness or the last night before the gallows) were shackled by the neck outside of the church in the uncomfortable height where you can't sit nor stand. 

We also were told about a convent in which the Mother Superior hid one of the nuns in the basement for over a decade after that nun tried to leave the convent because she fell in love with one of the local men. 

Groups are limited to five, so there was me, two of my friends, the tour guide, and a German woman delaying her trip back home since she wants to put off a 14 day quarantine. 

We ended up at the dragon's lair at Wawel. No surprise that after 1000 years of royalty buried on the castle grounds there are plenty of ghost stories there but you'll have to take the tour yourself to learn more. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Extra Red Zone

Last week I wrote about the newly enforced red zone rules. As of today, we are now in red zone 2.0. The red zone restrictions are now in place all across Poland, and they are even more strict: restaurants are only open for take out and delivery, public gatherings are limited to five people, and schools are now all virtual (with the exception of a few grades). I tried to convince Cameron to go out to dinner last night for one last hurrah, but he is Mr. Safety and asked that we avoid being reckless. I did happen to have dinner with some friends on Thursday, before any new restrictions were announced, so I feel like I managed to slip in my own little final hurrah. 

Coronavirus definitely feels like it is hitting closer to home this time around. Two of my friends had to cancel on me because someone in their vicinity tested positive, and I just learned that some of my coworkers had gotten sick. Apparently one of them had his wedding a few weeks ago, after which he, his wife, and 40 of their guests left with a new friend- Miss Rona.

Clearly, the Polish government is trying to regain some control, but they don't know exactly how to go about it. To compensate, they're taking it out on women's rights. 

On Thursday, it was ruled that abortions due to birth defects are "unconstitutional." Poland had already limited just a bout all other abortions, with only about 1000 legal abortions conducted last year. I know Poland is not my country, but it still is bad news that now gets to take up space in my brain. It is infuriating and tactless that someone decided that now is the time to drop this bomb. 

My Facebook today if filled with commiserating posts, red lightning bolts, and messages of "piekło kobiety," "wybór nie zakaz," and "to jest wona" (roughly: "beautiful women," "don't forbid choice," and "this is war.") Last night there was a women's march in Old Town. People were encouraged to wear black, bring signs & coat hanger, and of course wear a mask. Had I found out about it sooner I might have gone, but the subsequent videos are ominous, largely because it gets dark by 17:00 (although Poland daylight savings time is tomorrow). The dark mood was intended to convey "a funeral for women's rights." I haven't heard any negative repercussions from the Krakow march, but I know the Warsaw gathering included pepper spray and arrests. 

Well, I suppose I should end it on a good note. Hmm, let's see...the final presidential debate wasn't as shouty as the first one? client who can be a bit of a bully was actually really chill on Friday? I really love having a dryer again and being able to hug newly dried warm clothes? Eh, good enough. 

The smog at least makes for pretty sunsets (this was taken at 17:30 last night. I snuck out of work a little early to get a walk before it turned totally dark.)
Every day starts off by checking the Airly app to see what the air quality is. I try to not go outside unless it reads 50 or less, and I won't go on a run unless the meter is green.

A friend and I met up for a mini muscles fest on a boat last weekend. There's lots of boat restaurants along the Vistula, but of course those won't be accessible for a while.

And to end with a winner...this is what I do when I'm trying to entertain myself during the work day. I should be better at working from home now that it's been over half a year but it feels like it is getting harder and harder to stay focused. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Red Zone

For the summer, Poland has divided up the country into red, yellow, and green zones. Krakow has remained green most of the time, which has led to a mirage of safety and care-free socializing. Last weekend, all of Poland moved to a yellow zone, which means masks on when outside, a 10pm curfew for restaurants and shops, and limits to attendees in restaurants, on public transport, and at personal or public gatherings.

As of yesterday, Krakow became a red zone. Stricter capacity limits, 9pm curfew, no swimming pools or gyms, and no weddings. Breaking the rules could be fined up to 30,000 PLN (~7,500 USD). This is accompanied by increasingly rainy weather, the start of smog season, and some light flooding. Nonetheless, it doesn't seem as daunting as the start of the last wave. Maybe I'm being too blasé with the ordeal by keeping my social engagements and continuing to go out for restaurants but I would like to enjoy some part of living in a European city this fall. 

Well, I don't haven any particular fun stories from the week, but there are a few fun cultural and language differences I've been collecting that I'll share here.
  • Greeting a group of people, even just acquaintances "my friends"
  • Someone told a story where the character had to call "nine eleven." 
  • Babie lato literally translate to grandma summer but is the Polish equivalent of "Indian summer." Unfortunately, I don't think we will have any second waves of summer to pair with our second wave of pandemic this year.
  • October is also the end of the "holiday season." The first time I heard that term I assumed Polish people are just very advanced planners but "holiday season" refers to the summer months that people take vacation.
  • In English we might shorten "good morning" to "morning." Germans do it, too- "Gutten morgen" can be just "morgen." "Dzień dobry" would never be just "dzień." 
  • Wedding rings are worn on the left hand rather than the right hand. I've heard that it used to be on the right hand and you would only move your ring to the left hand after your spouse died. During the wars there were so many deaths that left hands just became the common place. 
Well sorry for a boring one this week.

Trying to catch a walk between the downpour to see the fall colors. 

Morning light plus have cloud layers makes it a little hard to capture the changing leaves. 

Flooding on the Vistula due to the incessant raining. 

The flooding was  right below Wawel Castle. 

Found some carving pumpkins for some indoor fall fun. Mine is supposed to be wearing a mask but instead just looks really surprised. 

One week later, the pumpkin developed some mount mold and had to be tossed rather than turned into a pie. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020


As a kid I LOVED fall. It was my favorite season for a lot of reasons: going back to school and seeing my friends every day, the smell of leaves, cooler weather, puddle jumping excursions, and of course my birthday. Autumn was also the gateway to winter- ski season! My first bout of seasonal depression was in 8th grade when we moved from Germany to New Mexico. Depression is an exaggeration, and typically when people talk about seasonal depression it's due to a lack of sunshine, but I was so disappointed that New Mexican September, and even October, did not feel like fall. It just was just a slightly cooler version of summer. There's no concern about limited sun exposure when you live at 32 degrees latitude! That first year I remember Dad driving us to Cloudcroft for the first time and I made such a fuss about how much of relief it was to see the changing leaves and smell the smells of fall that were missing in the more deserty Las Cruces.

I got over my initial distaste of the the desert, but I did move to Bellingham, WA for college, which regularly ranks as the US city with the least amount of sunshine in the year. Twilight was based in the Pacific Northwest for a reason! In Bellingham I was introduced to the medical condition S.A.D.- seasonal affect disorder. When others complained about the rain and gloom, I cheekily claimed that I had eagerly elected 300 days of rain over 300 days of sun each year. I should say that those numbers are not at all supported by a quick Google search.  

It was only in my final year at WWU that the persistent gray started to sink into my psyche. I remember walking across campus through another day of fine mist and thinking "I can see why this might bother people." Every year since then, it's gotten a little worse, and about two years ago I started to admit to myself that maybe I do suffer from S.A.D. Surely the public accounting busy season schedule doesn't help; it's a real bummer to arrive at the office before the sun rises and then leave after it has already set. Because of the long working hours (including on the weekends) I don't even get the chance to fully appreciate the joys of fall and winter.

Despite now living in sunnier Krakow, this year my winter woes hit an all-time high. Somewhere around early May I started to get concerned that we were approaching the summer solstice, which meant that the days would start to get shorter. Clearly future-tripping about the forecasts seven months in the future is a problem. Surely there was some fear about missing out on summer because of Coronavirus restrictions; although I was working shorter work days at that time I wasn't able to leave the house and enjoy those extra hours. As I've written before, Cameron and I did a pretty good job of making the most of our summer, yet I've been lamenting the onset of fall just the same. 

There is, however, one very special thing to look forward to in the fall (besides my birthday, of course). In both Washington and Poland, autumn is mushrooming season! 

For a long time, I didn't even like the taste of mushrooms but I think my love for foraging helped me to develop a keen appreciation for finding wild fungi. It probably started when I took an ecogastronomy class in college, then Cameron got a mushrooming book, and now I am the proud owner of a mushrooming knife. While mushrooming is a wonderful pastime among the granola community in Washington, it is a far more wide spread and serious activity in Poland. 

In the months of September and October, millions of people head to the woods in search of edible mushrooms. There are many varieties that can be found in Poland, but there are also a fair share of poisonous look-alikes so novice mushroomers are encouraged to buddy up with a more experienced guide. If you are a novice mushroomer, it's also pretty unlikely that you will happen across an edible patch anyways since those who are serious about the search are likely to scope out their patch very early in the morning and by no means will anyone share the location of their favorite mycelium purely out of the kindness of their heart. Many families have been passing down mushroom spots for generations- longer than the US has even been a country. 

As I'm sure is the case anywhere, there are a few hundred poisonings and a few dozen mushroom-related deaths every year. After all, there is a species called "death cap" that is common in the Polish woods. To preemptively avoid mushroom-related admissions, I've read that many medical centers will review your foraging hordes for inedible varieties. Vendors must also have their goods checked before they can sell them to the public. 

The mushroom species are pretty similar between Washington and Poland, and there are a few that I would confidently eat if I came across them (boletes, chanterelles, lobsters). That being said, I am happy to rely on the work of others. During these early autumn months produce markets are filled with mushroom booths. Dozens of varieties are available and make up a lovely collage of brown, white, yellow, and orange. The rest of the year there are still vendors selling farmed varieties, and you can often also find dried or pickled options from the previous year's harvest. Last weekend we got a few large handfuls of a small pretty orange mushroom for 15 złoty (~$4 USD) which made a really tasty vegetarian stroganoff. No, stroganoff is not a traditional Polish meal but you can have local mushrooms in traditional Polish pierogis, bigos, sauces, and soups. 

When I go out to the forest, I have no expectations to find edible mushrooms. Instead I seek out interesting mediums that I can incorporate into my foraged art projects. Even with a broader search interest, due to popularity of mushroom hunting and the mysterious nature of mycelium, no one is guaranteed to find mushrooms when they go out searching. Even those who are willing to wake up at 4am and go to a remote woods can't guarantee they'll find anything, so those who are out on the hunt need to prepare themselves to be satisfied with a nice forest walk as a consolation prize. 

The joys of mushrooming only lasts for a few weeks. At best it expands from September to early November, so it can't be the permanent cure to season-changing woes, but I do think that going outside and getting intimate with nature helps delay the S.A.D. I'm able to re-appreciate fall knowing that the cooler, moister weather is bringing these tasty and surprisingly beautiful fun guys (get it, fungi?). 

Mushrooms are so beautiful and varied. I love the colors and textures. 

Stary Kleparz is the place to go for any fresh local produce. 

Fresh mushrooms and dried mushrooms are available right now. 

Turkey tail! 

More mushroom art. I love the big shelf fungi but I need to figure out better ways to use them in my art. 

Mushroom stroganoff. It tasted better than it looks!

Once you start looking mushrooms are everywhere!

These little pokers looked so cute!

Some finds from one of the produce stands today. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

One Year

As of today, October 4th, Aackle has officially been in Krakow for one year. When I walk around the city, I still am giddy by how charming it is and I'm even happier that I've cut our my little space in it. Reading back to my first blog post from Poland (9 October, 2019) it seems that my life today could have been predicted to a T. For example, on day 1 in this city I had already started networking with a director at Pwc; now that man is my coach and team leader. It's really fun to recount what my goals were for myself a year ago and realize that I actually have been pretty successful and achieving them. 

Clearly, getting a job was the top of my priority list. "Job" felt like the direct path to friends, culture, and purpose. Thanks to beurocratic delays it took four months but now I have the exact job I expected to have–working as an auditor for a public accounting firm. I admit it's not my dream job, nor did I ever expect it to be, and I look back to my days as a housewife enviously, but it has filled my days. I enjoy going back into the office on occasion and having a group of people to gossip with and my manager likes to teach me new Polish phrases to express my frustration. Most importantly though I learned that it's not having a job that makes me happy and it's quite freeing to realize I don't have to make work my only priority. 

Not that work was every my only priority. Making friends was also high on the list and I laugh at the ways I went about it at first. Why I thought that going to a startup brainstorming event would lead to friendships, whose to say. Through the aid of women's groups, expat groups, Bumble BFF, work, and friends of friends I've found myself it the lovely situation of having too many friends. Last night to celebrate (and to have an excuse to use all of the mattresses in the house) I had some friends over for a sleepover. Going to dinner is one type of friendship, but if you are willing to hang out with someone for 16 hours and sleep in their house that's a good friendship. 

Learning Polish was another goal I gave myself, and probably the only impossible goal, but honestly I'm quite pleased with myself. Look back through old posts I remember the garbled sounds I made when trying to order obwarzanek or zapiekanka. Now I can even write them without having to look up how the words are spelt! I am nowhere near fluent, or even conversational, but I'm really please that I typically know the most important words to get my point across. Yesterday, Cameron and I went shopping at Stary Kleparz, Krakow's oldest operating marketplace, and I felt like a Polish couple- I was requesting tomatoes and mushrooms and paying with exact change while Cameron collected all of our purchases.

Yesterday's outing also included a stop at a new bubble tea shop and an art store. Round trip it was probably an hour of walking. Although I glanced at my phone for a directional reminder occasionally I know I could have gotten us to these places on my own accord without too much back tracking. I really wanted to know my way around the city, and even though I'm not always confident, I generally feel like I have a general sense of where I'm going and I always know which way is home. I even feel good about public transportation and will quickly change my mind about which tram route if I see a different number pulling up to the station. Of course the true test would be to show off the city to others, but that wasn't a possibility this year. Fingers crossed travel restrictions are (safely) lifted next summer!

The root of all of these 'goals' was a strong desire to fit in. I wanted others to think I was a local with a normal Polish life. I know that is an impossibility, and I've shed some stress now that I'm not longer striving for that. Although I still appreciate the amazement on my Polish friends' faces when I order a coffee in Polish, there is a freedom being able to go up to the counter and also ask "what do you recommend" in English and not feeling guilty about that. I love my little life in Poland, and I love it even more knowing that there's only one year left. Since it seems I'm unexpectedly good at predicting the future I would like the universe to know that I expect to start loving my job, all of my American family/friends will visit next year, I'll be able to travel to Georgia/Sweden/Ireland before we move away from Europe, we will go skiing in the Alps, and Cameron will find his equivalent of my women's groups–it's going to be a great year!

It's not a sleepover unless you have pizza! 

I went to a food bazar with a friend and waited in line for about 25 minutes to try this very tasty grilled scallop.

This is one of the churches closest to our new flat. Over the last year I've gotten a lot more comfortable walking into churches to check out their interior beauty. 

Stary Kleparz was full of late season produce. Everyone knows that the best produce isn't in the grocery stores but at the kleparz.

For my local friends, check out Bubble Kingdom! They are right off of Planty and really tasty!

I wasn't positive I was translating this add correctly, but I was almost certain (and later verified) that Brzyd Ola is the Polish version of Ugly Betty.