Monday, September 1, 2014

Seeking Accommodations

For a low-key summer, we slept in quite a few beds along the way.  Most of these were made necessary by a week’s road trip to visit friends in Pennsylvania, a two-day drive in each direction.  A two-day drive means finding a place to spend the night along Interstate 80, which pretty much guarantees an adventure in mediocrity.  For years I have been searching for the “sweet point” in pricing for these forced overnight stays.  My standards used to be low: clean sheets, hot water, and a towel or two.  But enough bad experiences (and, full disclosure, the process of aging) have led me to raise the bar.  In no particular order I now seek:
·         A room that does not smell like ancient cigarettes
·         Free wi-fi and a breakfast with decent coffee
·         A chair you can sit in with a light you can read by (remarkably uncommon)
·         A toilet whose flush does not terrify you in the middle of the night
·         A hotel that is not filled with partying participants in a softball tournament
·         A carpet I am not afraid to walk on barefoot
·         Something resembling blessed Quiet

Budget hotels almost always guarantee a miserable night, so we opted to go mid-scale, staying in Hampton Inns in both directions.  I got at least some of the things on my list, but I also got one of the things I most detest: a duvet.  They are quite the thing these days.  Pity the cleaning staff that has to change these monsters.  And a duvet pretty much ensures that you will be either too warm or too cold all night.  Just as I am waiting for “wraps” to disappear from restaurant menus, I am waiting for duvets to go the way of the water bed.

While visiting friends in Lewisburg, Pa, we stayed in a downtown Bed and Breakfast, The Tawsty Flower.  I am beginning to overcome my prejudice against B and Bs.  I am a slow starter in the morning, and especially hate the social obligation to chat with strangers before I have had my coffee.  I was deeply scarred by my first B and B experience, where I was seated with a man who was eager to discuss doorknobs.  Seriously.  But we had our simple breakfast alone both mornings in Lewisburg, the room was small but comfortable, and the location was ideal.  It did, however, have a duvet.

While visiting friends in Petersburg, a region of mountains, hollers, and gravel roads, we stayed at the only B and B I anticipate with eagerness, the Inn at Solvang.  It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, a mansion surrounded by glorious gardens.  We had the place to ourselves, which meant we could sip a cocktail in the music room or listen to crickets and tree frogs in the gardens while gazing at the night sky.  The breakfasts are spectacular – pancakes made with spelt from their own mill, drenched in maple syrup tapped from their trees, to give one example.  Excellent coffee.  Oh, and an on-site masseuse.  Solvang is almost worth a two-day drive just to stay there.  “Our” room (we have stayed in it three times) is huge, wonderfully furnished, and has – wait for it! – a blanket and bedspread instead of a duvet.  It was hard to leave and head for another Hampton Inn in Indiana.

We had several overnights in Madison, one in a really lousy place (as a bonus, the hood of our car suffered overspray from a restaurant next door that was being painted) and the other in the new Hyatt Place downtown, which was so nice that Susan said, somewhat amazed, “I really like this carpeting!”

More recently, we spent two nights in Munising to check on the progress of the construction project at our cabin.  We have not stayed at a motel in Munising in sixteen years.  Most of them, as one friend expressed it, have a permanent smell of old snowmobile boots.  We stayed at a new place, a summer-only motel, right on the shore of Lake Superior.  Not much of a breakfast, but also no duvet, the room was clean, and you can’t beat the view.  The manager is willing to cut me a deal on rates for the runs I will need to make up there these next two months.

So we now have good options in Munising and Madison, and places I would gladly return to in central Pennsylvania.  Which leaves the problem of Interstate travel and the ghettos of chain hotels and omnipresent Applebees.  I would be grateful for suggestions.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Warsaw in Pictures

The Old Town Section of Warsaw is the closest the city comes to having a "tourist mecca."  The Palace is there, as are many shops, cafes and restaurants.  January is hardly a prime season for visitors, but we are grateful we were able to see it with beautiful holiday lights.  You can see how they project falling snowflakes onto buildings, and how the President's Palace is lit at night.

An excellent traditional Polish restaurant where we took Anna, our ever-so-helpful host.  We returned for our final evening in Warsaw.

The pastry case at the restaurant we wandered into on our last visit to Warsaw, and where we took Kasia for dinner.  It is largely depleted by the evening meal, but we still had wonderful things from which to choose. That was the meal where I had my first (and likely last) taste of fois gras; if I was ever going to taste something so morally maligned, it seemed the right place to do it.

At the other extreme, here is what we ate in our apartment the night Susan needed to grade papers.  I bought what I thought was a filled pastry for desert.  It was filled all right - with spinach!

The luxurious facility in which Susan taught.  If anything, Kasia's office and classroom in the hospital were even worse.  American students and faculty are spoiled rotten! 


In an interesting coincidence, our last European trip was to Malta, an island nation that the Nazis bombed almost daily for 2 ½ years, leaving horrible devastation behind.  But after the courageous but short-lived
Warsaw uprising of 1944, Hitler completely leveled the city.  Earlier, 300,000 Polish Jews were loaded into boxcars and shipped to Treblinka, where the great majority was gassed.  The remaining Jews were herded into the walled Ghetto, where they were systematically starved to death.  After the Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Germans executed the rest.

The Warsaw Uprising (in Poland it is simply called “The Rising”) took place in 1944.  The Russian army was advancing into Poland, providing the hope that Russian troops and air support would aid the effort.  These hopes were in vain, as Stalin’s troops essentially watched the devastation take place from a nearby ridge.  A few numbers: before the war, Warsaw’s population was about 1.3 million, dropping to 900 thousand after the extermination of the Jews.  After Germany leveled the city in 1944, fewer than 1,000 persons lived in the ruins of the city (many others fled into the nearby forests).  When the war ended, the newly-democratic Poland considered creating a new capital elsewhere, but Warsaw carried too many memories.  It was rebuilt brick-by-brick, with women and children passing bricks and stones hand-to-hand.  Our friend Kasia’s Nanny, Dada (pictured) was among the women who participated.

So with but one free day available to us, we decided to visit the Warsaw Rising Museum, one of the most emotionally draining days we have ever spent.  In a small theatre, we watched a brief, 3D film taken with a
stereoscopic camera from a plane that did a fly-over in 1945.  Nothing was left, nothing.  It is an extraordinary museum that tells a story of unimaginable human evil, and remarkable human courage and resilience. 

Throughout the city are monuments and reminders, including simple markers that define where the walls of the Ghetto once stood.  Every year there is a solemn processional from marker to marker, and Ghetto tours are conducted daily.

Poland is now marking its 25th year as a democracy, founded in the remarkable year of 1989, when the Iron Curtin fell so dramatically.  That makes it a very young democracy, but conversations with our Polish friends suggest it is both stable and healthy, as is its economy.  They are still sorting out their relationship with Russia (their second president died in a plane crash, and conspiracy theories pointing to Russia still circulate, even as we still speculate on who killed JFK) and, to a much lesser extent, with Germany.  It is a city, and a nation, that has suffered terribly, but is now a vibrant and hopeful culture. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Our Polish friends

I noted before that this trip has been mostly about Susan’s teaching, not tourism.  But it has also been about friendships new and old.  In the latter category is Kasia (Katarzyna Broczek) who we met the last time we were in Warsaw. At that time, she escorted us on visits to a nursing home and adult day facility, and we hit it off well enough to spend part of our final day off that visit with her.  We have stayed in touch, and were eager to see one another again.

How to describe Kasia?  She has an MD and a PhD, a practice in geriatric medicine (making house calls on her most frail patients) and teaches medical and nursing students. (Susan did a guest lecture for some of her students this week.)  She also writes scholarly articles and studies mime in a focused way.  She holds street mimes and poseurs in contempt; her focus is on translating thoughts into emotions, and emotions into actions.  In her spare time, she cares for her 75 year-old cousin and her 102 year-old nanny.  Oh, and she raises marine fish.  (Only after we got home did I learn that she also studied theology for five years!) She lived in Tennessee for a year when she was a teen, and traversed most of the US via Greyhound bus.  She is intense, brilliant, funny and kind--a true and dear friend.  We will likely return to Warsaw, largely because Susan finds meaning in her teaching here, but also because of Kasia.  We had two dinners together, each more delightful than the other.

A word about having friends in or from Central Europe:  Gifts are important, and those of us American-born, no matter how thoughtful we try to be, will always be out-gifted.  We brought Kasia chocolates from Wilmar’s, a copy of our book, and a beautiful hand-crafted wooden bowl from the woman who sells them at the Appleton Farmers Market.  We thought we had the gifting thing licked.  Kasia gave us two ceramic teapots, three books…  Trumped again!

Then there is Anna (no picture available yet), the PhD student assigned to be our host.  She is lovely, brilliant, adventuresome and, as we were told in advance, very Dutiful.  She picked us up at the airport, settled us into our apartment, and provided us with groceries.  I had written to her asking for help in acquiring Polish SIM cards for our phones.  She arranged for us to have Polish cell phones.  I inquired about the most affordable way to ride the buses and trams.  She borrowed our driver’s licenses and used them to get us “senior passes” that gave us unlimited access to public transportation all week for less than 50 cents.  She spent four days hounding down my missing luggage.  We took her out to a delightful dinner and learned more about her.  She does her academic writing in English because she finds the language more versatile.  She has lived in Malta, Spain, and Long Island.  She has a brilliant academic career ahead of her, and we will stay in touch.

Then there is Jasia, the former director of the WISP program where Susan taught, who was disappointed that we had no free evenings for dinner, so instead took us to lunch.  She got her PhD at Columbia, and studies various forms of prejudice – she is kind of a Polish New Yorker.  She rides her bike everywhere until the snow gets nasty, and is giving serious consideration to putting snow tires on her bike. 

This is not to even mention the great people Susan worked with in WISP.   There are many reasons that Warsaw has become an important part of our global map, but these friends are certainly significant contributors.

Teaching in Poland

John’s allowing me a guest spot on his “What’s John Thinking” blog.  I just hope everyone understands that when “funny” was passed out genetically, I was standing at the back of the line.

This week (Jan. 13-17, 2014), I’ve had the honor of teaching a 15-hour elective course on the Psychology of Religion to eighteen students enrolled in the WISP program at the University of Warsaw.  WISP--Warsaw International Studies in Psychology--is an all-English, 5-year psychology program that leads to a master’s degree. 

WISP attracts students from all over the world.  Some of my students were Polish; others came from Belgium, the Philippines, Sweden, Portugal, Malaysia, and Finland.  To be honest, I’m not sure about the home country of every student.  I’ll learn more when I grade their final exams.  I offered them a few extra credit points to introduce themselves to my Oshkosh students who will be taking a 45-hour Psychology of Religion class during our May interim. 

Some of the students enroll in WISP for the whole 5-year undergraduate/graduate program, and others come for a semester through the Erasmus Mundus program which is run by the European Union. According to its website, Erasmus “aims to enhance the quality of higher education and promote dialogue and understanding between people and cultures through mobility and academic cooperation.”

When John and I were here in October, 2011, for the Alzheimer Europe meeting, I was introduced to WISP when a Polish colleague at UW Oshkosh connected me with the Dean of the University of Warsaw who recommended I contact Dr. Emilia Łojek, director of WISP.  She kindly invited me to give a lecture to a class even though it was the first week of the semester and she was burdened with administrative tasks.  Afterwards, she invited me to submit a proposal to teach a course of my choosing.  I selected the Psychology of Religion since they had never offered it in their curriculum.  However, because I was concerned about my mom’s anxieties when I traveled, I told them I couldn’t teach in 2012 or 2013. 

As many of you know, mom died in May, 2013, and so I was then free to start talking with the WISP folks about scheduling a class for 2014.  This class came at the end of the students’ fall semester and while I’ll know more when I get their evaluations after I submit their grades, I feel like it was a success.  Several colleagues with experience teaching European students told me that they tend to maintain social distance from professors.  However, from the first hour of the course, the students asked questions, made comments, argued with me, and generally engaged in a lively but respectful way with the ideas I presented. 

One big difference between this group of students and my students in Oshkosh is that about half were men.  In Oshkosh, I often only had one or two men in my classes. 

The WISP students clearly knew a lot about many areas of psychology.  A WISP faculty member told me that they are required to take only a few courses in other subject areas.  In other words, they lack what we usually call “general education.”  Although our US students take many hours of classes outside their major, too often they told me they forget everything they learned in them!  Hopefully, the new University Studies Program at UW Oshkosh is correcting that. 

Before I close I need to say something about the building housing the WISP program and the Polish Psychology Department.  It is located several miles from the main University campus, completely isolated from any other university offices.  The University located the psychology faculty and students there in the 1970s because they were considered subversive by the Communist regime.

Before the war, the building had been a hospital and a school, but the Germans took it over and made it their command headquarters when they occupied Poland.  It is located in the middle of what became the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw.  Across the street is a memorial commemorating the place where the trains loaded Jewish people being taken to Treblinka (the memorial is in the shape of a boxcar).   I never entered or left the building without feeling a chill of evil, and yet I then rejoiced in seeing bright young psychology students from all over the world going about the business of learning in the 21st century. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Small learnings

The Poles were standing at the front of the line when God handed out consonants, and when The Almighty looked away they grabbed some extra "z"s and "c"s.

Susan is teaching her last two classes this afternoon (she will grade the final exam at home and send the grades by email). Last night's snow turned to freezing rain today so I gave up my ambition to take a long walk and instead stayed in the immediate neighborhood of Muranow. This was the Jewish Ghetto, which is likely why the Nazis used the psychology building as headquarters. Directly across the street is a memorial to the 300,000 Jews who were loaded on trains and sent to the camps after the  Ghetto Uprising. Movingly, it appears to be among the first places to be cleared after a snow.  There is an impressive new Jewish museum nearby, but the major exhibits have not yet been installed.  Next time we come to Warsaw we will need to go.

The neighborhood is being aggressively developed.  Our apartment looks out on a construction site where I cannot quite figure out what they are doing, but given how short winter days are here the crews start working at first light.  Most newer buildings are designed with porticos, a nice thing in freezing rain.

I picked up a few grocery items then went to Carrefour, essentially a Polish version of Wal-Mart, to look for small gifts for the grandchildren. I have reached the tentative conclusion that Polish cashiers are disproportionately made up up of grouchy older women.  Here are some things you will not find in guidebooks:
   1.  They do not like to make change.  The total is announced in rapid Polish and when you give them, say, a twenty zloty note for your 13.45 bill, they wait for you to fish out the 3.45. Since I do not understand what they are asking for I either pull out all my change and try to look confused but pleasant or make writing gestures.  The ladies do not find either especially charming.
   2.  If you use the express line at Carrefour, you are not entitled to a plastic bag. Since bags are freely dispensed in the other lines, this is not intuitive to an American.  I made the horrible mistake of  reaching for a bag from the next counter and received a severe scolding.  I am grateful she did not call security.
   3.  Speaking of which, the supermarket in our apartment building always has a security guard standing just beyond the registers.  We have no idea why he is there and have never seen him do anything but look stern.  It is a practice we might consider to reduce unemployment.

Tonight we will have dinner with our friend, Kasia, and tomorrow we have the full day to play or explore before departing Sunday. Only two more nights in/on this miserable bed, which I have determined is - or once was - a futon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where we are living

brilliant photographer lives somewhere in Warsaw.  He or she is the person who took the pictures of this apartment that we viewed on the web, the ones that made it appear strikingly modern and attractive.  It is neither.  It is, however, serviceable and well-located, mostly meaning that Susan has a short walk to the psychology building, and the tram and bus lines are within a few blocks.

As best I can tell, very few units in this large complex are short-term rentals like this one.  Presumably most of the others larger; there are many young children living here.  The kitchen is equipped with just enough cups, plates, silverware, etc. to get us through a day.  There is no coffee maker, a sad discovery.  The small amount of Starbucks instant we brought “just in case” is long gone, and Polish stores sell the kind of instant coffee our parents drank in the 1950s.  Those readers who are addicted to good coffee can appreciate what deprivation this represents, especially given that there is no café within a reasonable walk that opens before eleven.

Then there is the bed.  It is a double-bed mattress resting on a single-bed box spring.  It is covered by a duvet that needs to be readjusted in twenty minute intervals through the night.  Susan generally does not sleep well when traveling, and she is making a serious run at a new Personal Best in sleep deprivation.

Since this is a working trip for Susan, who is cramming 15 hours of instruction with all the related reading of student papers and such into five days (add in the lecture she gave at a hospital yesterday to medical students), it is good to report that we have excellent wifi.   What we do not have is a desk, so she is using her thickest textbook as a lap desk as she grades papers. 

A miniature washing machine was creatively jammed into the bathroom, a wonderful asset during the days when my luggage was missing.  Like the rest of Europe, Poles love warm towels, so the heated towel rack has proven an effective clothes dryer.  We have been in many tiny European showers, but none quite so small as this one.  Early learning: if you run the water full blast, the shower will overflow in less than a minute.

Also like the rest of Europe, there are no washcloths, but I always bring my own.  I would one day like to watch a European man shave, just to see how he cleans the soap from his face when he is done.  The other rarity in Europe are ice cubes.  We do have an ice cube tray.  It makes eight tiny cubes, and I am grateful to have it.

There is a grocery store in our building, and the folks there are friendly enough.  We are eating in tonight so that Susan can get her papers graded, so I went down to purchase items for dinner.  I am not entirely certain what I purchased, but I am pretty sure it is food.  Friends like Kasia and Anna have been helping me with elementary Polish, but reading signs and food packages is part of the advanced course.

This may sound a bit whiny, which is not my intent.  Having our own apartment is a reminder that we are not here as tourists or to attend a conference: in a very small way and for a very short period of time, we are taking part in the life of Warsaw.  Kasia, who I will write about, has become a true friend and we are learning to feel a little bit at home here.  I will be surprised if Susan is not invited to return in a few years, and surprised if she does not accept the invitation.  I will bring lots of instant coffee.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Shopping for clothes in Warsaw

By Monday, not knowing when or if my missing suitcase would arrive, it was time to go shopping.  We went to Arkadia, which is the Mall of America of Poland.  I dread malls in general and have carefully avoided the M of A, but this was desperation.

On the plus side, European clothes tend to fit me better than American clothes do.  On the minus side, the sizing information appears to be utterly random and meaningless, and it was a challenge to find a salesperson who spoke English or who had a sense do how American sizes correspond to European ones.  I tried on pants that were a bit too long, others a bit too short.  It was not going well at all.

We finally wandered into a cavernous store filled with designer stuff.  Europeans appear to be inordinately fond of designer logos, while I am not.

We were turned over to a young woman who spoke a fair amount of English, who proceeded to study my body with great care, giving my butt particular attention.  "You are perfect 46!  You wait here." I did not correct her by noting that I am 65 and terribly flawed.

She triumphantly handed me a pair of pants that fit like a coat of paint. Never has my rear end been so sag-free. Likewise with the shirt she handed me.  She made me try it on just so she could gloat.

In theory I could demand reimbursement from the airline or my travel insurance now that my suitcase caught up with me, but it would feel wrong.  After all, I have nice new threads I would never have purchased otherwise, and I got to meet the only woman in the world who knows my body better than I do,  plus we got to buy some wonderful Polish pretzels on our way out.

One more purchase to mention, a bottle of Zubrowka Biala, the vodka we became fond of last time we were here.  Each bottle contains a blade of grass from a bison farm (what the Poles do with bison I do not know).  The bison pee on the grass and the grass flavors the vodka.  It was banned in the US the same year that absinthe was.  There is now a US legal version, but without the grass and tarted up with vanilla and sugar--nasty stuff.  Our first few guests when we get home can sample the real taste of Poland.  If they ask nicely, I will put on my duds.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Warsaw: the first two days

We arrived in Warsaw Saturday afternoon.  Unfortunately, my suitcase did not, and remains lost in the airline ethers, adding a bit of complication to life.  Fortunately our apartment has a washing machine, so daily ritual involves wearing one set of underwear and socks while the other set is drying on the heated towel rack.

We were met at the airport by wonderful Anna, the PhD student who is serving as our host.  She is altogether remarkable - brought us to our apartment, gifted us with some simple groceries, maps and guidebooks, and has been dutifully (if unsuccessfully) pursuing my luggage each day.
We were, of course, dog-tired upon arrival.  We explored our immediate neighborhood (mostly apartment buildings and a few markets), ate a simple meal courtesy of Anna, and slept for nearly 12 hours.

Sunday's first task was to make certain Susan could find the building where she would be teaching the next day.  It is a short walk from the apartment, and a grim building indeed.  It houses WISP, the Warsaw International School of Psychology.  It is a part of the University of Warsaw, whose main campus is in the Old Town section, and offers graduate and undergraduate programs taught entirely in English.  Many courses are taught by visiting faculty like Susan, with a two-credit course compressed into a single week (meaning she will give the mid-term exam on Wednesday).  The building was occupied by the Nazis during the war, and one gets the sense that it has not been dusted since.  I will encourage Susan to write about her classroom experience.

We also walked to a huge shopping mall, suspecting that I might need to purchase some clothing, and had lunch at a so-so restaurant there.  We soon learned that "English is widely spoken in Warsaw" is a bit of an exaggeration, but we are getting by on smiles, gestures, and our few Polish words.

Anna had done much scrambling to get us "senior" passes for the buses and trams, so it was time to put them to use.  We rode to Old Town, which we had visited briefly our last time here, and wandered about.  We mistakenly entered the Presidential Palace, passing through layers of security, and became part of a tour group.  The tour was, of course, conducted entirely in Polish, and once it began there was no way to leave until it was over.  I cannot imagine many American visitors have taken that particular tour.

Old Town by night, even in a light, cold rain, is spectacular!  The lights are magically beautiful, and the main street featured holiday "installations" - small buildings made of lights through which little children could run giggling.  Falling snowflakes were projected onto the walls of buildings.  The area was completely destroyed by the Nazis, then rebuilt brick by brick.  Unlike the central business district with its skyscrapers, no building in Old Town (palaces excepted) is more than three stories, and they ooze with charm.  We treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner in a cozy below-ground restaurant (me in jeans and a ragged shirt, but what can you do?).  Our appetizer was raw salmon, cream cheese and caviar, our entree chicken stuffed with veal pate.  For dessert we sipped vodka and nibbled on faworki, a simple pastry I had not tasted since childhood, when it was made by a Polish friend's grandmother.  We walked off our meal, and with a bit of trial and error found our way home on the buses (later learned that if the number on the bus is red it is an express that will sail past the stop you wanted).

Susan reviewed her lectures, and we slipped into our peculiar little bed (the apartment is worthy of a description in another post) in (vain) hope that she would get a good night's rest.