Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving Week in Warsaw

The days leading up to Thanksgiving were uneventful but culturally fulfilling; I spent even more time at the Russian film festival, which included seeing a couple of my old favorites, "Bumer," Tarkovsky's "Mirror," and, most exciting, the Polish premiere of Andrei Zviagintsev's new film "The Banishment." I recommend all of the preceding, by the way. Among those in tow to the Zvyagintsev premiere were Pawel's entourage (though Pawel himself was in Berlin) and a couple of Aussies I'd met in the hostel. I was delighted and surprised when they wanted to go to the Russian film festival with me even after I told them there were no English subtitles--rare creatures indeed. I was anticipating having to live-translate a movie in a crowded theatre with a fair degree of dread; merciful fate spared me (and my would-be annoyed fellow audience members) when the theatre didn't have anything but double and triple seats left; Liz and Ellie, the Australians, sat with Natalya, since she had the last block of seats. For all of us, the half hour following the movie was an examination of semiotics, chronology, and philosophical overtones, all with the general unifying factor of "so what the hell just happened, anyway?" You know, the standard discussion of any decent art film. The Aussies and I also visited the Warsaw Uprising museum and learned in graphic detail what a raw deal Poland in general and Warsaw in particular got in WWII, and followed this depressing endeavor up with a fantastic jazz concert and a martini that was a little heavy on the vermouth for my liking. But as often happens on this long and circuitous odyssey, time arrived for my compatriots to part, and I found myself looking down the barrel of a loaded Thanksgiving.
Since Facebook is the arbiter and daily picayune of my generation's social realm, I couldn't help but notice all my friends' status messages changing to "I'm going home! It's Thanksgiving!" I looked outside, however, and saw a conspicuous absence of cartoon pilgrims, Indian corn, or even stylized Hallmark turkeys. I saw these status messages a'changin and thought to myself "...not here..." This thought saddened me a shade, so I sent an email to my Warsaw friends saying "come celebrate American Thanksgiving with me. Free food. See you at six," and sallied forth in quest of what Arlo Guthrie would call "a Thanksgivin' dinner that couldn't-be-beat." By God, I found it. I made gruyere scalloped potatoes and chicken breasts with a butter-based white wine lemon sauce with bell pepper slices and capers. It was easily the best meal I've had in a couple months, and my guests (all two of them) agreed. They wanted to take me on a tour of Warsaw by night afterwards; this was a substantially more drawn-out endeavor than any of us had anticipated, and Pawel and I got back to the hostel around five am. Pawel came back with me because he wanted more potatoes, which made me happy. As he ate his potatoes, however, I found myself shivering and aching all over. I'm uncertain whether my considerable malaise was a result of Thanksgiving dinner, flu, or the rather questionable kebab from the Warsaw outskirts. What is certain, however, is that I stayed in bed with a fever and all manner of sundry unpleasantry until 18:00. I awoke at 11:00, and after rolling into the fetal position, I started mumbling "H5N1...H5N1" and considered going downstairs for my Tamiflu regimen, but that seemed like far too much work, so I stayed bedridden and decided that it wasn't that bad, like a true Fagan. But no, mother, I drank plenty of water and took acetominophen for fever reduction, so all was well.
But the largest obstacle of the day lay yet before me. I told Pawel I'd meet him and the gang at a billiard club at 19:00, and I thought it would be rude to stand him up, so off I went to "Golden Wheat American Billiard Hall." By my reasoning, Golden Wheat sounds more Soviet than American, but no one asked me. I digress, however. I greeted everyone, and when I got to Natalya, Pawel's girlfriend, before touching me or saying hello, her voice diverged from its usual sweet Belorussian girl tonality to stern babushka, and the dialog went something like this:

"You have fever. You must drink hot beer with honey and cinnamon with shot of hot pepper vodka."

"but you haven't even touched me yet; how do you know I have a fever?"

"I am a woman, I know these things."

And I suppose that just about settled it. Furthermore, I couldn't think of anything more fall-back classic Russian/Belorussian than looking to distilled grain products as the cure of all mental and bodily ills (as backwards as that seems to my prim Western ways.) Since I wasn't paying and I didn't think I could feel a great deal worse, I had a mug of hot honey cinnamon clove beer to chase my shot of honey pepper vodka. Between the two drinks, there wasn't enough alcohol to accomplish much in the way of altered brainstate, but I did indeed feel better. I think if ANYONE tells you to do some bizarre folky health thing in an authentic stern babushka voice, it's bound to work, simply by the power of suggestion that naturally accompanies being old and Slavic.
Yesterday I went to the symphony, and I felt better still, though the state of my gastrointestinal tract left something to be desired. Have you ever pinched your butt cheeks together for forty-five minutes and still tried to enjoy classical music? It's damnably difficult, but I did it. The concert consisted of Bartok, Lizst, and Kodaly choir-based psalmic pieces, and it was beautiful.
Today, not only am I back in something resembling good health, but I'm in a hostel with friendlier staff and decent computers for my final two days in Warsaw. I may have a slight detour soon, though, since I received an email from one of my old Krakow contacts about an upcoming tournament. They want me to play, so I may go back to Krakow for a week or so before heading to Gdansk; train tickets are very reasonable in Poland, as long as they're intranational. There were two feet of snow on the ground in Krakow last I checked, however, so my need for boots deepens...perhaps literally.

More updates are always forthcoming. The speed with which they come forth, however, may vary. Bear with me.

colder than the nipple on a witch's tit (don't blame me, Thomas Pynchon wrote it first),

Josh Harris

Monday, November 19, 2007

L'viv and Warszawa Ephemera

Sorry it's taken me so long to post this one. I suppose I've felt a little on the dissolute side since there's not much in the hockey way here, and when I write this thing, I want to make sure you actually have something in front of you that's worth reading.
I've traded the narrow streets, barn-rinks, and smoky cafes of Krakow for something far different in Warszawa. Warsaw is huge, scattered, and only the barest remnants of its pre-war old world glory endure. It's traded this old world glory for a different sort: a position as one of Europe's preeminent financial capitals. Between the intimidating skyscrapers and eight-lane boulevards, Warsaw seems every bit the intimidating concrete jungle. To an outsider, it is. But if you have some connections and speak the language a little bit, there's quite a bit beyond Warsaw's grey exterior.
The initial days in my first Warsaw hostel left a shade to be desired.
When I mentioned the globalization discussion in the previous blog entry, it seems that was only scratching the surface. Martin, the receptionist, and Richard, one of the guests, described themselves as "truth-seekers," which is a fancy euphemism for conspiracy theorists. Apparently we live pointless lives because the Illuminati don't want us unlocking the true power of the human mind, ("because they're afraid of our potential") so they make us slaves to financial systems. All this will culminate in one world government and the total enslavement of the human race, and then the greys will come and free us from tyranny.
With all due respect, it seemed to me to be a titanic load of bullshit. I backed them into a couple of corners, though. "So if these events are beyond your control even in the barest capacity, why bother? Doesn't this just give you something other than living and working and dying to worry about?" Something about the way these guys tried to make every world event fit into a handy though sinister system seemed frankly...Ptolemaic. I told them that their ideas were certainly interesting, but if the simplest solution is often the best (thank you William of Ockham), then it would make much more sense for events to connect, sure, but not with a whole bunch of hidden little retrograde movements necessary to explain the interstices. Ptolemy had to invent a beautiful system of obscenely complicated mathematics to make the Earth the center of his universe; it seems these gentlemen were inventing a subsystem of things unseen and unobserved to make the Illuminati the center of theirs. The whole thing irritated my logical sensibilities, but at the same time seemed an interesting manifestation of faith--namely a faith in a system of hidden, mortal connections that cannot exist without skepticism. But I digress.
At any rate, initial impressions of Warsaw were essentially poor. It seemed like a cultural and architectural wasteland, and I was really looking for a change of pace. I've been contemplating a change of strategy for this project for a while now, and with stagnation setting on, I thought it wise to try a different method of attack. My goal was to leave most of my luggage at a home base city (Warsaw, in this case,) and try to make connections in a series of shorter trips to different cities, thus paving the road to hockey in a given place before I went to the arduous physical expense of tacking another leg on to the full iditarod regime. So I set out for L'viv, Ukraine, to find some hockey contacts and re-meet some old acquaintances from Krakow. It's proven infinitely excellent to see the same faces more than once, so beyond the search for contacts, the side excursion was something of a fall break for me. The train ride itself was uneventful, and the entire side trip frankly just made me hate my material possessions more. I traveled with a large shopping bag full of clothing, toiletries, my cd player, and a book--less than ten pounds, all told--and damn it was nice. Even though the train ride was uneventful, other things were not. I tried conversing with this middle-aged Polish man and his daughter, but the gentleman used my eagerness to practice my Polish as an opportunity to practice his English and lambaste me for the color of my passport. He ranted for a solid half-hour about the woes of the Bush administration and the terminal laziness, stupidity, and obesity of the American population. My arguments that "we're not all like that" seemed to fall on deaf ears. I tried talking about Polish culture, but it only seemed to prove his point when the only Polish playwright I knew was Slawomir Mrozek. Ultimately neither his English nor my Polish were good enough for us to reach any kind of mutual understanding, so I sighed and looked out the window until he got off the train, which he mercifully did soon thereafter. So, under the misguided impression that the trainride to L'viv was nonstop, I proceeded to sprawl and sleep. To my alarm, however, a small, friendly Polish man woke me up at the border and ushered me off the train. I was travelling on All Saints' day, and for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that there would be holiday-related delays. When I finally find another computer and internet connection that isn't wretched, I'll post the pictures from Przemysl, the first of which is me with a "here we go again" face. As I sat outside the customs office, which was closed until an undisclosed and mysterious time, I couldn't help but think of that wretched night in the tiny Slovakian mountain town, Krasnahorske Podhrady. All I knew was that my train left for L'viv at 19:24, and if the customs office didn't open before then, I was many different kinds of screwed. Przemysl is the only Polish town I've yet encountered without a McDonald's, and it had more spires than I knew what to do with. I went up on White Castle Hill, knowing I had a few hours to spend, and listened to the All Saints' Day prayer calls coming up through the mist from the valley below. It was remarkably peaceful, and the peace was only slightly tainted with the occasional twinge of "oh God please I don't want to get stuck here" in the back of my mind.
Mercifully I didn't. The customs office re-opened at 18:00, and I had plenty of time to freeze my ass off on the platform before boarding the train.
Due to the holiday-related travel delays, I didn't arrive in L'viv until 00:45. L'viv is poorly lit and a little scary looking by night. I had no directions to my hostel, only an address and a tiny, rudimentary map in my "Let's Go! Eastern Europe." So on blind instinct I start walking in a direction that would seem to take me to the center of town. It was a combination of dumb luck and a triumph for my sense of direction, because I found the place with relatively little incident. I was expecting the place to be dead, but after putting my bags down, I walked into the kitchen to find a lively party of seven or so people hosted by the owner, Eddie. We all had a good time and slept precious little. The next few days in L'viv were interesting, to say the least. After picking my friends Allyssa and Marissa up from the train station, we explored the city, and I bought my most unusual souvenir yet, an old Komsomolsky Bilet from Soviet days, in other words, a Komsomol (young communist league) membership card. The guy whose defunct identity I purchased had flawless attendance until 1985, when he stopped abruptly. I can't help but think that Gorbachev's reforms were somehow involved in his sudden lack of interest.
All told, L'viv was a pleasant experience, since everyone over thirty speaks Russian in the streets and Ukrainian isn't difficult to understand. I went to the bania while I was there, for the first time since Moscow. For those of you unfamilar with the custom, the bania, or Russian bath house, is essentially the most Slavic thing ever. It's a sauna with three rooms: first, the warm room, where you can bathe and such. Then there's the tiny room that's so impossibly hot that it hurts to breathe. In this room, you flagellate yourself with birch twigs to remove dead skin, improve circulation, and generally just increase your own discomfort. When you're either about to die or pass out...whichever comes run into the third room, which is an icy cold pool. Basically it's just like Russian history and literature: for every ten minutes of abominable suffering, you get thirty seconds of pleasure and release. You leave exhausted and feeling impossibly clean and rejuvenated. For other good experiences in Ukraine, I went with Eddie and another hostelite, Chris, to this bar in town which was Ukrainian-resistance-themed. The atmosphere was excellent, and it had a lot of historical dedications to this band of militants who fought both the Nazis and the Soviets at the same time. We were having a grand old time when, boom, out go the lights. From the sounds of things, they fired up a generator that put out just enough power to keep the keg pumps going. It's good that the bar knows where it's clientele's priorities really are. The bania and the blackout bar were highlights for sure, but so were Ukrainian prices. A three-course meal complete with beverage costs approximately $5.
Between the cultural comfort, prices, company, and a certain quantity of my own laziness, it took me considerably longer to get out of L'viv than anticipated. I had an open ticket, which meant as long as I returned to Warsaw before the first of January, I was sorted. Here enters the laziness factor: the only train to Warsaw leaves at 07:18 daily. We all know how much of a morning person I am. I tried leaving on my planned departure date, the morning of the fourth day, but my strategy for so doing was perhaps ill-concieved. I thought the best way to make my train in a timely fashion was to stay up all night. It seemed like such a good idea that I tried and failed not once, but twice. The third attempted-escape day seemed much more promising. I found a train that ran at 13:25, and that seemed extremely reasonable. So I slept in and headed to the train station with a few minutes to spare. I went to the counter to buy my reservation and discovered, to my dismay, that the train was an express. Paying the additional $75 to board this thing seemed less than palatable, so I finally bit the bullet and, on the fourth morning after my original planned departure date, I got on that morning train with bloodshot eyes and suitcase in hand. And here you'll find my most humiliating (and in my opinion, hilarious) anecdote from the trip so far.
For those of you who have already read the following, I apologize for repeating it. I wasn't originally going to post it in the blog, but my obligation to journalistic integrity (such as it is :-P) dictates that I must.
When changing from Polish to Ukrainian train tracks, you have to stop for a couple hours and change the undercarriages, since the tracks are of different widths. It's pretty cool, frankly, but it's a really irritating delay. At any rate, the Lebanese food I had last night was urging to escape my body, and so I go to the bathroom. I assumed that Ukrainian trains have a certain level of civilized amenity...the ones in Slovakia and Czech did. Now, using this bathroom was an act of bravery in and of itself. I wiped the seat and the paper came away black, and if I end up with an ass disease, I'll know that it came from the toilet seat of the living dead. So I evacuate my bowels in an insufferably foul and loose blast, and proceed to flush. To my dismay, when it flushes, I find myself looking through the floor and onto the ground beside the train. Uh-oh. I decide to leave the bathroom with due haste, but apparently bad news travels fast, because no more than a minute and a half later, this awful old Russian woman with dyed cranberry red hair and a uniform is throwing the longest stream of Russian profanity at me that I've ever endured--it would have made a convict blush. She hands me a broom and dustpan, and, that's right, I have to sweep up my own excrement, corn and all, from the railroad tracks with a straw broom and deposit it in the nearby grass. Her vituperations continued upon my return to the train, and I'm apologizing my ass off, but she just keeps yelling. One of the track attendants, however, a good old Ukrainian gentleman with a moustache, intercedes on my behalf after laughing heartily for about two minutes. I told him I was very sorry, it was an honest mistake, and I thought there would be some kind of tank to recieve my...offering. He tells the old lady to sit on something and chill the hell out (more or less literally), and tells me that it was okay, that I gave him something to laugh about for the rest of the week. I have not been so embarrassed in YEARS. It only took about ten minutes for me to start laughing hysterically about it, though. It was one of those situations where if you can't laugh, you'll break. Good thing it was funny. In conclusion to the L'viv excursion, I made some contacts in, the entire process of contact-hunting and transit was too expensive and complicated. I think I'll stick with my initial strategy.

My return to Warsaw was marked with some difficulty. I got back to the hostel and they had lost my reservation. It was only by sheer dumb luck that they had a single bed left for that night only. So I stayed, but morning brought the realization that I was ostensibly homeless. I recalled an email from a chance acquaintance from Krakow, offering me lodging while I was in Warsaw. I figured it couldn't hurt, given my situation. I called Pawel up and met him and my French friend from Krakow, Mallorie, at the Georgian culture festival. which Pawel had orchestrated more or less by himself. The movies were interesting, the food was great, and the company couldn't have been better. Pawel had other guests in town for the weekend, though: Natasha, his Belorussian girlfriend, and Kate, his Estonian friend. So there we were, chatting in English, Russian, and Polish, and I felt like part of some big, strange multilingual circle of friends. At that very moment I realized how awesome being a polyglot is. When everything was cleaned up, we headed home and the nine of us crashed in Pawel's two-room apartment. Allow me to rephrase, actually. The girls went to bed and Pawel, his friend Kuba, and I stayed up until the wee hours nursing our vodkas in the kitchen and talking about music, art, literature, cars and girls. It was a very Slavic moment.
Since Pawel had to go out of town for a concert and further, since I didn't want to wear out my welcome, I've since changed back to the hostel life, though Pawel's buddies are still more than happy to show me around. Last week I spent most evenings at the first Warsaw festival of Russian film, which proved not only culturally great, but therapeutic as well. I've learned on this trip that sometimes it's invaluable to know everything that's going on, even if only in a crowded cinema for an hour and a half.
So between the films and the festivals and the myriad museums I've visited, I've been culturally engaged and stimulated. My language studies are coming a little more slowly since shifting back to the hostel, but I suppose what's most irritating about Warsaw is the following: there is only a single ice rink in this city of one and a half million people, and its schedule is primarily for, you guessed it, figure skating. I still have two or three emails floating in cyberspace awaiting response, but Warsaw thusfar seems to be a wash. I just have to keep compensating for the lack of ice with linguistic and cultural explorations.

In other news, next week I'm headed to Gdansk, on the shores of the Baltic. You should all fly over here so we can all become members of the polar bear club, because, good readers, the water, like everything else here, will surely be colder than a bucket of penguin shit.

Best regards from the increasingly frigid north,


P.S. Those of you in the American South, be grateful; you have more than five hours of daylight.