Monday, January 28, 2008

Second Quarter Summary

I submitted the following to the Watson Foundation today; peruse as you will :-)

Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:

It saddens me to mention that my calendar year abroad will be one-half complete in two days. My second quarter has been a rollercoaster ride, a series of inconveniences, scary moments, bizarre encounters, and triumphs. Though my hockey possibilities have blossomed into dizzying profusion, the cultural experiences in the past quarter (hockey-connected and otherwise) have proven far more influential on my year so far. Here's a brief summary of my activities.

When I last wrote you, I had every intent of leaving Poland for Kaliningrad, the Baltics, and parts unknown. At the time of my previous report, however, I couldn't've possibly anticipated the kindness and generosity of the Polish people. After my fruitless scouting trip to Ukraine, I returned to Warszawa discouraged. The hostel had no room for me and I was in dire straits; I took a gamble and called a chance Warszawian acquaintance who'd offered me accommodation weeks prior in a smoky Krakow bar. The week that ensued dashed my negative initial impressions of the Polish capital against the rocks; Pawel Godlewski showed me the side of Warszawa that the tourists don't see: the side with a vibrant cultural event happening every night and loads of friendly people who aren't perpetually in a hurry. I spent my time there brushing up on my Polish slang, going to cultural festivals of all sorts, and speaking snatches of Russian with Pawel's female friends, who were enrolled in the Russian language master's program at the local university. I cooked a delicious Thanksgiving dinner for the whole crew and got them in on American holiday tradition.

I was just starting to get a little tired of Warszawa when I received an unexpected email from my team in Krakow: they'd entered an upcoming tournament and wanted me to play for them, if I were still in Poland. Though the tournament itself wasn't much to write home about, it opened a door to A) a much longer stay in Poland and B) perhaps the most rewarding experiences of my trip so far. I extended my Krakow stay because I was waiting to go home to Biskupice with my friend Pawel (Janik, not Godlewski). He and his family thought it would be a shame for me to be alone on Christmas, so he extended me an invitation to a traditional Polish Christmas extravaganza in his home. Though my family has its own traditions (snack food all day, cinnamon buns for breakfast), my holiday at the Janik household was something altogether different and extremely special. For a few days, I was a part of traditions that Poles have observed for hundreds of years, from the exchange of wishes and strictly-fish dinner on Christmas Eve to the Christmas Day twelve-course meal and drinkstravaganza. Said drinkstravaganza featured maybe a little too much of Mr. Janik's delicious homemade strawberry rocket fuel. Aside from the warmth and companionship I found in the Janik household, my best Christmas present involved fulfilling one of the goals on the master checklist I wrote at the beginning of the year: I got to play hockey on a lake as the sun set in the distance. I've been trying to send you pictures for basically forever, but hostel internet is unreliable at best, nonexistent at worst.

I went to Gdansk from Biskupice, and after I shrugged aside my cat-related allergy woes (the Janiks had three cats), I began to search out teams. It bears mention that at this point my Polish, though far from fluent, is completely functional. I sent emails in readable Polish to four teams in the area, and I got multiple positive responses. I was elated to actually have the ability to choose a team. One team was a bunch of showboating jerks who weren't nearly good enough to justify the bloodthirsty seriousness with which they approached the game. Another team was extremely disorganized and unfriendly. The team I've stayed with the longest on the trip so far, though (Gdynski Klub Hokejowy), has provided the most rewarding hockey games yet. They actually have organized tri-weekly practices and they scrimmage twice a week. Playing five times a week sounded like my idea of a good time. I made a big impact, and their captain asked if I'd be interested in staying on to play with them for the rest of the season. I was so enthusiastic I even emailed Watson central to notify them of my quandry and potential change in plans. Only recently did I find out, however, that it's not totally up to the GKH if I get to play. The league has a governing body that has to approve my place on the team. The league requires papers saying that you've never played professionally, and since my league in the US provided no such documentation, my chances are nonexistent. It came as something of a blow, but it's at least helped me reprioritize. Now I'm in the Baltics, where the hockey has been all but absent, but I'll go and reseat myself in Gdansk until my visas for Kaliningrad and Belarus come through.

I realize I've waffled a bit about whether or not I can go to Kaliningrad, but one of the most bizarre moments in my trip came after one of my hockey games in Gdansk. Two of my teammates are Kaliningraders of unusual background. They drive VERY nice cars, curse incessantly, and were so happy I spoke Russian that they took me and my Russo-Polish teammate to dinner at a four-star restaurant after scrimmage one night. I was curious what they did to put them in such comfortable financial standing, so I asked Sergei “so what do you do?” He and his friend had a healthy chortle and then there was a long pause. Sergei's friend, Erik, answered for him “Sergei is...a businessman.” Between that and their assertion that they had “friends who would be more than happy to help me” at the Russian consulate, I couldn't help but think, upon leaving, that I'd just had dinner with the Russian mafia.

The quarter had its share of mishaps too, unfortunately. Two near-miss muggings in Krakow put me on my toes, and the admittedly peaceful robbery in Gdansk's old town proved that walking on the street anywhere is just a roll of the dice. The robbery itself was nowhere near as irritating as the subsequent difficulties I had retrieving my luggage from the train station--before the thugs who took my locker key got there first. Strength comes through adversity, though, so I took the chance to use my Polish in a series of stressed phone calls with the luggage bureau. A few days and approximately 200 zloty later, I had my luggage back just in time for my first scrimmage with GKH. I think it may have been the only time I've ever enjoyed carrying my bag. Ultimately there are good and bad people everywhere, and sometimes no amount of careful planning and awareness can save you from a seedy situation. Managing the aftermath is decidedly the line between novice travelers and more advanced ones. For instance, unlike a gentleman I met in a hostel who wouldn't go out because he was afraid of getting beaten by Russians, I haven't let these little patches of scariness compromise my resolve.

Hence since Gdansk I've headed for points north, namely Vilnius and Trakai, Lithuania, Riga, Latvia, and I'm presently writing you from Tallinn, Estonia, at the end of my Baltic Segue. Though hockey connections have been sparse, the languages and cultures here are so quirky and isolated from the rest of Europe that I'm staying a little longer in the region before returning to Gdansk; I want to get more than just a cursory idea of what's happening in these fascinating places. To substantiate, though sandwiched between major hockey powers (Russia and the Scandinavian countries), the Baltic nations even express their eccentricity through their choices of national sports. Lithuanians play and watch basketball like madmen. Hence every Lithuanian student who tried to start a conversation about the NBA immediately ran into a roadblock of my ignorance on the subject of hoops. From my time in Riga, I've determined that the unofficial Latvian national sport must be organized crime. Estonia, finally and perhaps most bizarrely, boasts extraordinary skill in the field of table football. I'm not terrible myself, but I can't begin to enumerate the times Estonians have destroyed me at foosball.

My flexibility and adaptability continue to grow and flourish. I had no intention whatsoever of spending so long in Poland, but the longer I was there, the more I felt I had to learn before I was satisfied. I suppose I've been that way since I was small; I'd research whatever interested me at the time until I found out what I wanted to know. Having such a massive research/play ground to indulge my curiosities has been immensely rewarding, and my ability to keep my itinerary flexible has yielded some amazing experiences that would have been otherwise impossible. The longer this trip has gone on, the more I've learned to follow my instincts, and not just about where I'm going to find fruitful hockey options, but about people, places, and situations of all shapes and sizes. So while my second quarter has yielded some great games, some great friends, and a whole new pack of language skills and cultural knowledge, I can't really word a lot what I've learned. Traveling is just like any other undertaking in life; you meet good and bad people, and even though you evolve and adapt to circumstances as they present themselves, perhaps the most important thing of all is maintaining a stable core. I've tried to keep in touch with my roots while immersing myself in my surroundings as thoroughly as possible. One really trivial example illustrates my point very well: I met a group of Estonian students who took me for a really nice meal of all the national favorite foods. In return, I took them to the only place I've seen in in this part of the world so far that sells Dr. Pepper. They'd never had it, and I thought that a terrible shame. On the surface, it was a fairly unimportant exchange, but the small things we exchange with others add up. And as we learn from each other, we grow together and perhaps bridge the gaps between individuals and nations. Our Dr. Pepper festival began a lively and fruitful discussion about Estonian culture, international politics and the ideas of America. I won't be so presumptuous to say that I changed anyone's mind about my country, but I planted a seed, and maybe someday, with a little nurturing and positive interaction, that seed will grow into something great.

Whether in rink, locker room, hostel, or bar, I have so much to learn from everyone I meet. Last quarter I was so concerned with finding a team that I'm sure I must have missed some really fabulous opportunities along the way. Now that the hockey's coming easily, though, I've been filling the interstices learning how different we are, and, more importantly, learning how much we all have in common. It's my sincere intention for this all not to sound...fruity. It bears mention, though, that I'm continually amazed, because that even beyond the uniting power of sport that I mentioned in my initial application and last report, there's something even deeper: the simple fact that there's always something to discuss, something to learn from others. It just takes some words in another language, some mutual patience, and a healthy dose of goodwill.

With fond regards and sincere thanks to all involved,

Josh Harris


P.S. Pictures are forthcoming; I PROMISE.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

An Uninspired Title for a Blog Entry Far Too Long to Summarize

This is the longest blog entry ever; consider yourself warned. Read it in doses if you must. The chronology jumps when necessary, but substories are presented in their entirety so as not to dash continuity against the rocks--just keep in mind that, especially when dealing with luggage issues &c., other things were happening at the time. The episodic format favors the narrative, so please bear with it.

I've been extremely busy and happy since my last blog entry. Perhaps the cultural highlight of my trip so far has been my incredible Christmas with the Janik family. They welcomed me into their home with a generosity and openness that I can neither express nor adequately repay. Pawel's village of Biskupice is five hours' trainride from Krakow, and the journey was pleasant, even, since I had a handy porter for some of my luggage :-P. We changed trains in Katowice, and ate at a restaurant that can only be described as a hellmouth. It was lit by a single sodium lamp, and the roof leaked into my soup a couple of times. It was charming, and the pictures look like an Edward Hopper painting. Nighthawks meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I had some goulash with some incomprehensible and mysterious meat. Somehow "cat goulash" has a nice ring to it. Bums stumbled around our table in various states of intoxication and disarray. If the restaurant were in the American South, it would have been the scene for a Carson McCullars story (Balada Smutnego Kafe?). But I digress.

The holiday began with a big hug from Pani Janik, a refrigerator raid for tasty sausage, and an immediate excursion to hang out with Pawel's rowdy friends. Now, Biskupice is a very, very small town (900 people), so, just like in Batesville, you have to make your own fun sometimes. Our fun the first night consisted of throwing rocks at walls, cannonballing cheap champagne, and generally enjoying each others' company. The following day was Christmas Eve, which for Polish Catholics means no meat. No meat means fish. Eastern Europeans have bizarre penchants for icthyoids, and I made sure to keep a running tally of the foods I tried that I might not have on my own turf. I'll preface this by mentioning that ALL the food was good, even the things that struck me as...odd. Though not exclusively from Christmas Eve fare, see how these strike your mind's tongue (a potentially gross analogy):
1) Pickled herring wrapped around a pickle wedge
2) Fried carp
3) Mackerel paste
4) Zurek, a soup made from moldy rye bread
5) A chicken soup-like substance suspended in gelatin instead of broth
The fish dinner was preceded by the formal exchange of wishes with special Polish wish bread, which bore a remarkable resemblance to communion wafer. Christmas eve was a time for rest and reflection, and we shared gifts. I got two Krakow t-shirts and a Polish hip-hop CD (yes, I know, shut up).

The twelve-course meal on Christmas day was enormous and delicious. Two soups, two meats, four kinds of salads, two kinds of cabbage, and then polished off with almond-poppyseed cake and some of Pan Janik's homemade strawberry-flavored rocket fuel. I haven't eaten that much in months upon months. Christmas night consisted of going back out with the gang. All six of us piled into the Trabant and drove around, as you do in a small town, and we ended up taking turns holding on to the roof rack as we barrelled down a dirt road. Then we walked on the lake. It was grand.

More amazing times on the lake were to be had the day after Christmas, when Pawel gave me a Christmas present I could never have expected. He said "get your stick and skates" I decided against asking questions and said "okay." Fifteen minutes later we were back on the lake, and I was putting my skates on this time. Playing hockey outdoors, without boards or boundaries, absolutely must be the most exhilirating feeling ever. It's just freedom: the wind on your face, the frozen lake grass visible just inches beneath you, the setting sun in the distance that looks as though if you skated across the lake, you could touch it and hold it with your two hands...but it's still a pain in the ass when you miss the puck and have to skate a third of a kilometer to get the damn thing.

It bears mention that the Janik family has three cats: Julian, Mishka, and Burek. Burek was by far the coolest; he was enormous, hid in dark corners, and snuck onto the kitchen counter to eat leftovers whenever he could. The family dog, Sznappy, was extraordinarily awesome and full of energy. I'm not here to tell you about the dog, though. I'm here to tell you about the cumulative effects of cats on my respiratory system. I have an asthmatic allergic reaction to cats, and after three days, I was utterly miserable. In the process of bidding the Janik family a fond farewell, I noticed how miserable I was just going up the house's main staircase-- without my luggage. I could scarcely imagine hauling my things for not one but two train changes. It was simply a matter of necessity, though, so I bore with it. Now I have another train story, though it's not nearly as embarrassing as my last. I've been on the road for over five months now, and I pride myself on doing an adequate job of, if not fitting in, at least not getting in anyone's way. I broke that streak on the train and finally pretended that I just didn't get it. Polish (PKP) trains are outfitted with large luggage cars at the beginning and end of the train. My particular train, however, had a staff lounge instead of the large baggage cart at the end. I started to put down my luggage in the large room when a PKP ice queen asked "a co pan robi?" (what is the gentleman doing?). I thought about answering that I was putting my luggage down, but instead just said "slucham?" (I'm sorry?). I was ashamed of playing the "DUMB" card, but considering my pulmonary state, I decided I'd let someone else be inconvenienced for once. She proceeded to explain that I needed to go to the other end of the train. I understood her perfectly and nodded and smiled a lot, but in the end just took the nearest available seat in the adjacent car. My luggage took the seat next to me. The train went from empty to full very, very quickly, and people were going to get the same employee and yelling about my bag and how it was taking up valuable space for unimportant things like children and husbands. I simply did not care, no matter how much she yelled at me. I gasped for breath, pretended to be asleep, and smiled and nodded in the interstices until she left me alone, though I certainly noticed when she switched from the formal to the informal manner of address. Not my proudest moment, but it was a matter of self-preservation. I felt like switching ends of the train via the platform, as the lady suggested, would not only have caused the train to leave without me, but also to be rolling the dice with my health. Changing trains in Poznan was bad enough, and I didn't want to add ANY unnecessary steps.

Upon arrival at Gdansk Glowny, I chucked my hockey bag into short-term storage at the station and proceeded to Baltic Hostel, which I found in short order, and immediately had to adapt to a new hostel environment: upon my arrival, instead of seeing the smoky common room full of young faces I'm used to, I saw a smoky common room with a bunch of people who'd obviously been there a while. None of them were under forty. None of them spoke English. On first impression, it seemed like walking into a John Waters movie with Polish subtitles. To their credit, though, they're all dears in their own way. You have Artur, the bizarre fortysomething who spends hours a day on the internet looking for a woman. No one knows what he does to make money, where he's from, or any other details that ultimately prove trivial in la vie hostel. There's Fredek, who moments after meeting me wanted to sell me a really nice silk new blazer that he just had lying around. It was too big, and what the hell would I do with another blazer anyway? No matter what time of day it is, he's always encouraging me to eat, "or else you won't grow." There's the slightly-less-likeable and trustworthy Marek, who doesn't have to wear a "ask me about my grandkids" t-shirt, because chances are pretty good that he will anyway. And if he thinks you didn't get all of it, he'll tell you again. And again. And again. I suppose the quantity of vodka the man drinks would do that to anyone. Presiding over it all is Tomek, a man who might be a better fit for times where there were Teutonic knights and crusades and legitimate excuses for chopping people in half with swords. He's a jolly Polish man with an enormous moustache, twinkling eyes, and a jolly Polish belly to match. He makes a different soup every night, and when the hostel guests are being too loud, he produces a great axe from behind the couch and jokingly (or maybe not) brandishes it at the offending parties. All that's missing is the morbidly obese woman-child in a playpen demanding her eggs (see Pink Flamingos).

I went straight to bed; this was far too much input to handle. My recovery from my catass lung nightmare redux continued the next day, when I didn't bring myself out of bed til just before the sun set. I wandered toward the center and discovered that Gdansk is staggeringly beautiful. Though it was bombed into heaps of dirt and rubble in WWII, the center of Gdansk has been restored in all its Dutch Renaissance glory. I meandered along the canals and the long market, but, not knowing where the safe places were and weren't, I returned to the hostel before ten. A pair of new guests had checked in to my room, and to my dismay, one of them had sleep apnea. The room was a tumult of snoring until he just...stopped breathing. Just as I'd drift off, it'd start up again. This went on for several hours, and he finally rolled over, which solved the problem. As I was resigning myself to sweet rest at last, however, a troupe of Slovenian college kids trundled in fresh off the train (it was 5:00). I sat bolt upright in bed and mumbled unrepeatable things in four languages. The day had begun.

Though sleep-deprived, I decided not to be bitter and sieze the day. I got a pre-dawn kebab (perhaps the best kind) and hit the town center just in time for sunrise. The pictures were good, but hardly an adequate representation of the crisp morning. As quickly as I discovered the beauty of Gdansk's center, I discovered that, like most port cities, it gets seedy quickly. In America, you have gang violence. In Poland, you have soccer hooliganism, which is basically the same thing, only better-organized, more condoned, and on a larger scale. Tagging and shoe displays are universal, though, so when I saw the Reeboks slung over the telephone wire, my first thought was not "hey! free shoes!," but "get me the hell out of Dodge." Needless to say I've stuck to well-lit and populated thoroughfares. This didn't help me too much on one occasion, as you'll see.

After the sleepless night and the gorgeous dawn, I'd seen all there was to see in the city center by 9:30. Let's go to the beach. Now, Gdansk is a city by the sea in the loosest sense of the word. The shore is about five kilometers from most of the residential areas, largely due to port pollution concerns. I have a general philosophy: when I'm in a new city, I avoid public transit for the first few days so I can get a real feel for the city plan and the logistics, and not just zip blissfully from place to place. More often than not, this means I walk absurd distances for my first couple of days in a city. And so I did. I walked 16 kilometers my first day, all the way to Westerplatte, the first site of Nazi invasion in WWII. On the way, I found an outdoor market which sold everything from hand-knit clothes to used underwear to half a guitar to hardcore pornography. I crossed over the Pope John Paul II bridge and down a long stretch of barren road surrounded on both sides by freight tracks and intimidating industrial sites. The beach, however, was charming--and covered in frost. As a southern boy, I found something intrinsically novel about frost on a beach. The pictures will be up someday.

Things got pear-shaped on my second night. My hockey gear was still in its railway station locker. I knew I'd have to pay an additional eight zloty ($3) for keeping it there an extra day, but that didn't seem so bad. I was walking around not far from the center of town, and I noticed I was being followed by three imposing-looking youths. They were gaining on me. I looked for a cozy pub or supermarket or person I could walk with or anything at all, but none availed itself in time. In an admirably-executed maneuver, one guy passed me and blocked me, and the other two steered me into an alleyway. I'm not sure why I didn't panic--it was more of a forehead-smacking "DAMMIT" moment. They wanted my money. I just had what was in my pockets, which was 50 zloty, or about $20. Far more important is what was NOT in my pockets: I didn't have my passport, my credit card, my camera, or else anything of particular value. They were sure I had more than 50 zloty, though, so they said "pockets." I turned them inside out, and lo and behold, there was no more money, but out popped the key to my locker at the station. "That too." I shook my head, handed it over, and told them to enjoy themselves. They walked away chuckling, and I walked away grateful that I wasn't carrying anymore than I was and that they just wanted some beer money through illegal means.

I was NOT grateful, however, for the inconvenience my dispossessed key caused me. Further research indicated that the storage lockers required an initial payment of 8zl for twenty-four hours' use. The subsequent twenty-four hours would incur an additional payment of 32zl, and for every twelve hours after forty-eight, an additional 32zl would be added to the total. After 72 hours, the company forcibly removes your baggage from the locker and deports it to Katowice (the above-mentioned hellmouth), a 12-hour trainride from Gdansk, where you must retrieve it. When I was robbed, I was in the Purgatorial "between twenty-four and forty-eight" zone. The customer service number for this company was conspicuously absent; a website was the only thing supplied. I went to the website and found that the company had lockerboxes as something of a whimsical side-venture. They were an investment company, and, out of desperation, I contacted the only email address I could find on the site, an address to which you're supposed to send business plans, investment ideas, and the like. My email's subject heading read in all caps: MAM OGROMNY PROBLEM "I HAVE AN ENORMOUS PROBLEM," and detailed my unfortunate situation as best as my Polish would allow. Mercifully the response was prompt. Time was ticking down, hooligans had my key, and she supplied me with a number. I called it. It was December 30, and the answering machine message said "closed for holidays." My luggage was accruing exhorbitant fines (or, worse, in Katowice), hooligans had access to my things, and a machine was telling me "wait until next year." Glorious. The matter sorted itself out in time. After a series of confusing phone calls in smatterings of four languages, it became evident that my luggage was right where I left it, the locker had not been opened, and there would be a tidy fee for getting it out. The Polish service industry isn't as prompt and cruel as its American counterpart, so my luggage never made it to Katowice. I accepted this fact as a holiday gift. Happy New Year. I paid the nice man with the keys his 136 zloty and was ALMOST glad to have that old, familiar weight hanging from my shoulder again as I carried my nasty burden back to the hostel. I was far more glad that the completed first volume of my journal wasn't gone. Replacing my hockey equipment would have been a pain in the ass, even though I love shopping, but I really might have cried if my journal had gone missing. On the whole I'm just glad I have all my shit back.

So now that you know about the mean streets of Gdansk, I'll tell you who I think is behind my robbery and luggage miseries. In a little perechod, I saw "bylem tu--Osama Bin Laden" (I was here--Osama Bin Laden) spray painted on the wall. Al-Qaeda works in mysterious ways, and we'd sure as hell never think to look for him in Gdansk, Poland.

The hockey aspect in Gdansk is, perhaps as expected, more complicated than in previous ventures. As my Polish has blossomed beyond the rudimentary and into the functional, my emails to various teams have become less and less sloppy. In fact, it was merciful that Jan, my contact in Krakow, understood English reasonably well, because when I look back on the initial email I sent him in Polish, it's unreadable. But before I came to Gdansk, I sent emails to four teams. One didn't reply, one said there was no space on the roster, one replied with a terse "Tuesday 21:00. Saturday 22:00," and one replied with an email in English offering me a heartfelt welcome to their practice on Friday. I recieved this email on Thursday, so I took the opportunity to walk to the rink. It's a six-kilometer walk, and when I got there, it was early yet, so I decided to go to the green-looking oceanside spot on my map known as "Ronald Reagan Park" (no kidding). So I walked and walked and walked. It was worthwhile, but when I returned, I looked back on my map to discover that I'd walked about 24 kilometers round-trip. My feet were ridiculously sore, and so were my hands; I bought two kilos of pierogies and New Year's champagne (two bottles, enough for everyone at the hostel) at a little supermarket not far from the beach. About thirty seconds after I was through the checkout line it occurred to me what a staggeringly stupid idea this was. I walked twelve kilometers with groceries. The above doesn't sound like a lot, but after 3k, it's grating. After 6, it's unbearable--and you're only halfway home.

I wasn't really sure how I managed to stand in the morning, much less how I managed to skate that evening. But skate I did, for Gdynski Klub Hokejowy (GKH), and they liked me. I liked them. A bunch. Walking to the tram stop was difficult, though. When I skated for the first time in Prague, I remember being amazed that I didn't have better endurance because of all the walking I'd been doing. I forgot that you use a completely different set of muscles for skating than walking. It was a bane in Prague, but it helped me out a lot here in Gdansk. I'd walked myself into the dirt in a way that I hadn't since Warsaw, but I've been playing a fair amount lately, so though my walking muscles were close to shot, my skating muscles were in fine form. Grzegorz (my contact on the team) hinted at wanting me to stay for the whole season, which, though the prospect elates me, it complicates the whole nature of my project, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

My Saturday game wasn't nearly as encouraging. The team, the Tri-City Twisters, were a bunch of jerks. They threw KURWA after KURWA (THE Polish swearword) at me for not playing in their system. Now, I would have accepted the criticism if I'd been able to discern some kind of system in the way they played hockey, but to me it just looked like they were trying not to run into each other. It was bad disorganized hockey masquerading as bad organized hockey. Furthermore, when we were scrimmaging, they were total babies about taking a good, clean American hit, even though they were clearly playing full-contact. They didn't say I couldn't come back, but I don't think I will unless I'm just looking for extra ice time.

Since then I've started to get a little attached to my GKH buddies. They practice in a seasonal 1/3 regulation-sized rink in Gdynia, a 20-minute trainride from Gdansk. Our locker room for these practices, in size and amenity, is somewhere between a basement and a garage designed for two small motorcycles. Eighteen people and eighteen hockey bags share this impossibly cramped space, and we change in shifts. You're lucky if you're on first shift, because then you don't have to wade through hockey bags to get out of the locker room. Barn-burning, no-frills ghetto hockey: the way I was raised and the way I like it.

Yes, I know it's been a month. Yes, I know this thing may have felt longer than Hiawatha, but I hope it was at least more interesting.

Happy New Year.