Thursday, December 27, 2012

XII. Roofied by life

What the hell happened to the past month? Seriously, I apologize to all friends, family and internet stalkers for my long hiatus while I – to sum up a blitzkrieg of writing, archiving and swashbuckling – got shit done. I can’t believe how much time passed so quickly. I feel like I’ve been roofied by life.

But let’s skip the excuses and apologies and get to the juicy stuff, shall we? First, however, a rant about what the hell happened to the past 30 days, because honestly I don’t know, and also because I feel that you, my dear reader, have been conditioned to gnaw through a slew of digressions before reaching the rich marrow of my prose, and I would hate to deprive you of the foreplay. And yes, I am aware of how perturbing and (hopefully) off-putting that metaphor mélange must have been – unless, of course, cannibalism is your thing, in which case, I know a great guy in Poland – but once again, it’s all part of the conditioning. Take solace in the fact that you will be a stronger person afterwards.

So I have this inchoate theory that time develops the same way humans do, with the same progression of mobility. First, that little lump of time just lies around, occasionally kicking or screaming, but generally immobile. Then it learns to crawl, followed by some teetering steps, until, one day, abruptly and without ceremony, it walks (and here is where the nostalgia and pathetic attempts at atavism often kick in). Then it figures out running, followed by its first tricycle, which quickly gets traded in for a bicycle. A few years later, time is running through the house waving a big driver’s permit in your face. Then it gets a car. Next thing you know, your little time goes speeding down the I-20 without you.
Well, I feel like my time just got its pilot’s license.

Thankfully, most of the month’s events aren’t particularly blog worthy, which we all know is an incredulously low standard (seriously, I just read an entire entry about morning toast. Our generation has some major disclosure issues). I’ve been focused on applying to MFA programs, in the hopes that someday I won’t have to dole out my brilliance for free on a self-created blog. In reality, what it means is that I’ll be doling out my brilliance on my self-created blog while interjecting every paragraph with a plug for my new novel no one buys, but maybe gets opted for a Hollywood movie. An MFA also means that my prose will get suffused with a somnolent lyricism, with poetic limitations and the cadence of an autumnal creek. In other words, it may mean I will start to sound like everyone else. At least, that’s what I think as I stir the last of my oatmeal in an old pickle jar. I’m still wearing the purple spandex dress with black tights, and my hair feels smoky and oily, every strand still permeating of sweat and cigarettes. I spoon a small lump of oats and try to swallow, but it feels too dry, and flavorless. I’d forgotten to add sugar. I fill the last clean receptacle in the apartment with water to help wash it down, but it just makes it worse. The water tastes like last night. Like counterfeit vodka and chasers from concentrate. Maybe the cup wasn’t clean after all. Maybe I should have stayed home with Primo Levi rather than suffer the frivolities of living people. After all, that's what books are for, aren't they? To be friends with the dead and imaginary when the live ones fail you…

Yep, you should probably get used to that, maybe subscribe to the New Yorker to prepare yourself, because this little vegetarian is stepping into the literary meat grinder. (She also just made her second cannibalism reference of the day, thus filling her weekly quota. Second parenthetical: I actually love the New Yorker. Deborah Treisman, if you ever read this, you are my heroine, and your fiction podcast my heroin.)

Okay, digression complete. Onto the past month. Okay, fine, I’ll admit it: month and a half.

1.     Family vacation: My mother and sister used the excuse of my ex-patriotism to fly over and see Prague and the Bavarian alps. It was the first time in almost a decade that we took a girls’ trip (my parents are in medias res of divorce; the “I survived…” t-shirts will be distributed as soon as we actually do). Honestly though, it was the best family vacation we’ve ever had. Relaxing, heartfelt and full of rich conversation. The only weird part of the trip (other than all of us getting along) was our tour guide in the alps, who kept trying to force us to visit a village called Oberammergau [five syllables: Oh-ber-arm-er-gau]. She wanted us to see Oberammergau because it puts on a passion play once a decade, but given that the village was the midst of its nine-year off-season, we didn’t feel particularly compelled to drop in. Well, that’s not entirely true. At first I did, because I assumed a passion play was some kind of tumescently erotic showdown, full of hyperbolic professions of love and hate between love-making. I mean, how can you hear the words “passion” and “play” without thinking it must have something to do with ecstatic sexual encounters? But, no, once again my Jewish ignorance misleads me. Apparently a “passion play” is the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ew. Gross.
Okay, time to save myself 1000 words. Check out the Bavarian alps:

My family on a hike


This is medieval instrument is called the hurdy gurdy.

This castle is Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein, probably the most flamboyant structure ever built. Basically, Ludwig wanted a big Broadway musical set of a romanticized medieval castle, with no regards to budget or historical accuracy. I had read a lot about King Ludwig II before seeing Neuschwanstein, so I knew about his underground grotto with the swan boat and the opera stage, and the fact that he never had a wife despite incessant pressure from an entire nation to do so, followed by his deposition and suicide. From these ad hoc facts, historians often conjecture that the king was gayer than Elton John’s bedazzled sunglasses. But after walking through the valley of unicorns and gilded swans myself, I feel that Elton John’s paraphernalia are much, much too straight for this to be true.  
If you ever find yourself in Germany, this castle is a “must-see.”

2. Visiting the Keret House, aka Dom Kereta. I will elaborate on this in my next entry. Also, there might be an article about this getting published soon. I’ll keep you posted.

3. Prague: the sequel
So two weeks after visiting Prague with the family, my friend Ira invites me to a Swedish House Mafia concert in Prague’s O2 Arena. I’d never heard of Swedish House Mafia, but Ira was driving and paying for the hotel, and I wanted to return to Prague. Besides, every time I brought up that I would be going to see these mafiosi, my friends would immediately implode with jealousy, so I very well couldn’t forfeit an opportunity to make them think I’m cool.
On the drive, Ira played a Swedish House Mafia song called "Don't You Worry Child." The lyrics were nostalgic and wistful, the piano chords were simple and rhythmic and I liked the opulence of the singer's timbre. I started to get genuinely excited to hear what else this band could do.
The day was incredible. Endless and delicious food, phenomenal sightseeing and thigh-slapping company. Finally, we left the main square to go to the concert. Well, Swedish House Mafia, very much like the Swedish mafia in general, doesn’t really exist. You see, Swedish House Mafia is not a band. They don’t make music at all, actually, because they’re disk jockeys. Yep, I paid over $100 to sit in an arena full of coked-out Eurotrash wearing sunglasses at midnight to watch a DJ spin records. I felt like such a dupe for unwittingly participating in a multi-million dollar scam, and there was nothing I could do about it. Well, nothing except get hammered enough to forget the fact that we were at a concert without musicians. I really fucking hate my generation sometimes.

How did I not kill myself again?

Oh right: this pretty much captures the lack of sobriety

And I happened to be in good company :)

Alright, that’s enough catching up for now. More to follow soon. In the meantime, there’s a grad school application just waiting to be cried over…

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Na koniec, mam

 This weekend I finally picked up my old computer from the repair shop. Of course, by that I mean, I walked in upon a disgruntled looking employee, asked for my computer, and received a prompt and savory “Nie ma,” before I could even provide my reservation number. For some reason, people here seem to love not having whatever good or service you seek. The words nie ma—literally translating to “Don’t have,” and roughly to “fuck off”—boils inside them all day, and they clearly relish any opportunity to release these five letters in a seething froth of self-satisfaction. Every time I hear an ecstatic “Nie ma,” the subtext seems to be “Haha! Yes! My exclusive solace in life comes from knowing I have the power to make your life harder. You will keep returning here, everyday, frustrated to the point of psychosis, and every time you enter we will be closing. The lights will be on, the door open, and the noon sun still high above us, but we will be closing, and you will have to keep returning, again and again, in a Sisyphean nightmare of which only we have the power to awaken you.”

But this time I was determined to break through their diabolic time loop, to break the cycle. I physically grabbed the shopkeeper’s shoulder and fumbled through some angry sounding Polish words, carefully constructed so as to remain within the safety of the nominative declension. Her eyes widened, and suddenly I saw a human being behind the system. “Tak.” She whispered, astonished. “Mamy.” My jaw hung slack, useless. We have. I couldn’t believe my ears.

So here I am, sitting in my apartment back in Wrocław, restoring order to my cyberuniverse. My files have returned to me. My life has returned to me. And, contingently, my motivation.

Or, for those of you too lazy to read:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

X. Toruń Orientation: The Gingerbread Museum

The first thing you need to know for this story to make sense is that I love ginger. I love anything and everything ginger. Ginger tea? I buy the boxes in bulk. Ginger cats? The cutest creatures on the planet. Ginger candies? My purse is like a ginger mass grave, empty wrappers unceremoniously piled at the bottom.* Ginger people? Look at my past relationships (that’s right, Nicholas John Humphrey II. You thought I liked you for your hipster rants about American Conservatism or your outrageously Anglican name? Think again.) Anyway, the point is I freaking love ginger. So imagine my ecstasy when I discovered Toruń is the capital of gingerbread. I had to run back to the hotel and cry softly into my pillow, truly overwhelmed with happiness. It was almost too much to bear.

Once I learned how to pronounce the word for gingerbread in Polish (pierniki) my language lessons were officially over. I bought bagfuls a day. Pierniki were the only things that kept me awake through morning lectures. The only things that kept me smiling through our ninth dinner of potatoes. The only things that kept me communicating with my peers (Peer: “Hey Elise! Can I try a bite of your pierniki?” Me: “Fuck off.”).  At night, when my daily pierniki bag was finally empty, I would dream about which kinds to buy next. The ones dipped in dark chocolate? Or maybe the traditional Catherine bread, named after some medieval girl the king proclaimed the official pierniki baker for the entire kingdom? I finally found where I belonged: Toruń. Everyday in Toruń was a pierniki day.

Then one day, the unimaginable happened. We were going to the International Pierniki Museum. An entire museum dedicated to gingerbread! I immediately wondered if I was qualified to apply as head curator. I began planning my permanent move to this parochial Polish town.

After Polish class (Po proszę pierniki. Wiele pierniki. Lubię pierniki?), the time had finally come. I ran downstairs and waited for the tour guide, my weight shifting constantly from foot to foot, desperate not to pee myself with anticipation. Yet as we walked up the stairs to the entrance, it became immediately evident that the “Pierniki Museum” was not a museum by any stretch of the imagination. The international Pierniki Museum was a single room with a man and woman dressed up in medieval peasant garb and an overpriced gift shop taking up half the space behind them. The other “museum-goers” constituted of a fourth-grade class trip. I knew it was a fourth grade class trip because half the girls wore leggings, and the other half jeans.  By fifth grade, sartorial self-autonomy breaks down and the dictatorship chooses either leggings or jeans as the official standard, contingent upon the decade. My decade was a hegemon of bell bottoms, but, according to my niece, the current ruling is “jeggings,” an intermediate of the legging-jean dichotomy. I also knew this was a fourth grade class because the girls lorded over the puny boys like geese in a pool of baby ducks. The rest of the audience comprised of Fulbright scholars: professors in their sixties and seventies, doctorate candidates and post-grads. Apparently, it was not obviously in which category I belonged…the fourth grade teacher actually started escorting me to their side of the room before realizing that, despite my stature, I was not wearing jeans, leggings or “jeggings.” I was not amused.

Jeans or leggings... Why did I sleep through that lecture on conceptual clustering?

Finally, it was time for us all to circle around and shut up. The woman (who introduced herself as the “gingerbread witch”) threatened that if we shared the secret to her perfect recipe, we would be burned alive. Except that she clearly could not give a shit. She said all her lines in perfect monotone while twisting her finger around the purple highlights in her hair (not a 13thcentury fashion). And somehow, while within inches of sixty eager audience members, she managed to give the entire speech without acknowledging the presence of a single soul. This degree of apathy does not come naturally, and I'll admit I was impressed.
On the other hand, the “medieval peasant” presented his lines with the cheerful spunk of a cartoon elf. He gleefully welcomed each and every one of us, and spliced in jokes at every possible juncture. Between the depressed punk rocker and this sexually ambiguous elfin creature, I decided I didn’t want a career here after all.

And that became even more evident with the events that followed…

Courtesy of the Muzeum Piernika
 Now here’s where the story gets quite disturbing. It begins with the witch’s explanation of how to make the perfect pierniki. Get this: gingerbread does not entail any ginger. This has to be the biggest case of false advertising ever, perhaps only second to low calorie ice cream. Why would you call something “gingerbread” when it is neither ginger nor bread? I still love it and it’s still delicious, but, seriously, what the fuck? To make matters worse, the pierniki dough has to sit in a barrel for 12 weeks before it’s ready. That’s right, eighty-four disgusting days in a dank basement to gain its spicy flavor and brown bear hue. In fact, the fresh dough is a kind of a light biege. 

While these were not our medieval pierniki guides, it captures the general sentiment (courtesy of the
Żywe Muzeum Piernika)
However, none of this even mattered after what we learned next. After gingerbread bitch and the elf explained the secrets of the pierniki, we “made” our own. Squishing a handful of their pre-prepared dough into little brown turds, we rolled the turds in flour, flattened the turds with a rolling pin, and then picked out a mold to press onto them such that they would look less like turds. I chose a dancing bull in an ovoid frame. Then we transported our molded turds onto a giant baking pan to transform them into delicious pierniki. I have to admit, they still looked delicious even after finding out that they’d been sitting in a mildewed, possibly rat infested basement for 12 weeks before getting molded, and even after thinking of them as fecal matter. I counted the minutes until I could bite into my drunken bull, hot and soft and crispy all at once. This was probably the closest I’d been to desiring meat since vowing vegetarianism 14 years ago.

I couldn't find a picture of a bull, but it's the same general idea

After ten endless minutes, it was time to remove the pierniki from the oven and take them off the baking trays. Yet just as I lifted my moronic bull by its horns, the elf announced that these were not edible pierniki. No, rather these were the decorative kind. I clamped my mouth shut. The decorative kind?! Apparently, it’s a Polish tradition to make gingerbread that you don’t eat. This is incontestably the most upsetting nonsense in the history of Poland, which is saying a lot if you’ve read anything about Poland’s history. Seriously though, what kind of sadistic joke was this? Who the fuck makes gingerbread that you can’t eat? Apparently gay elfs and their emo sidekicks.

So that was our trip to the gingerbread museum in Toruń. It sucked.

(*Is it appropriate for me to type that in a blog about Poland? Probably not.) 

Skipping to the Present

Due to the almost four weeks I spent computerless, I have a tough decision to make: do I play catch-up and try to brief my loyal readers on the last month, or do I skip to the present and cut my losses? If I do the former, I'll always be living in the past (which I do enough in a post-diaspora Poland as is). If I do the latter, I don't get to write about the Fulbright Orientation, and the fascinating village of Torun.

So here's my compromise: I'm going to post the 2 articles I do have from that time, and then move to late October. Once I retrieve my old computer and its hard drive, I will send anyone interested our official Fulbright itinerary and my notes from the daily lectures, with topics ranging from Polish Romantic literature, to conspiracies regarding the Smolensk tragedy (the plane crash in Russia that killed the Polish president Lech Kaczynski), to the Open-Gate Sociology Test of Poland, to Optical Tomography techniques and genetic medicine technologies. I have pages and pages of notes, and some of the lectures were absolutely captivating. Others, not so much.

The only events I truly wish I had time to write about are the Malbork Castle and the philharmonic concert in Bydgoszcz. Thankfully, wikipedia has fabulous articles about the castle and the Teutonic Knights, and, as for Bydgoszcz, words always break down at the doors of music anyway.

So onwards we go!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

IX. Waiting for Feinstien

The next morning, I checked out of the psychiatric hospital/hotel and headed to the US Embassy in Warsaw. Well, more accurately to the sidewalk in front of the embassy. It probably took about 90 minutes for all of us to get through security, which comprised of putting all items through an x-ray scanner, confiscating electronics, and being escorted through a metal detector, followed by a desultory physical inspection. I’ve never been to a US Embassy before, so I don’t know the standard procedure in terms of security, but this seemed gratuitously hardcore. Especially for Poland, not exactly the epicenter of organized…well, anything.

Once we made it through security, life on the other side was rough. Without our cameras, cell phones, and iPads, we had to resort to making eye contact and conducting conversations. If it wasn’t for the stale coffee and cookies, I don’t know what we would’ve done to fill the awkward lulls, other than rip off our clothes and dance around the furniture in the style of Lester Horton. Thankfully, before it came down to that, the rest of the group  passed the security check. So we all sat down and waited for the ambassador to come in and explain to us whose brilliant idea it was to give a bunch of twenty-somethings $25,000 to reek havoc on foreign nations.

The US Embassy, Warsaw: an etude to Soviet-block structuralism

This turned out to be a long wait. Instead of listening to Ambassador Feinstein, we watched some poor staff member stall for two hours until he arrived. At the time, I felt really bad for the woman, but in retrospect I can’t help finding her desperate attempts to keep our attention hilarious. Why they couldn’t just let us talk amongst ourselves or engage in a Q and A is beyond me, but it was worth it in order to witness the flailing one-woman show. Every joke (“Who here is from Ohio? Any Ohians out there? Oh, hi! Ha!”) was followed by an apologetic “He’ll be here any minute. I promise.” She always seemed just one pregnant pause away from attempting to juggle or do the can-can. It had the painful and awkward humor redolent of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office: too somberly real for farce, but too farcical for somber reality. I could almost picture Larry David squinting at the woman, bewildered, while simultaneously wiping cookie crumbs off his pants.

Finally, the ambassador’s arrival marked the end of this bizarre series of delay tactics. He apologetically walked up to the podium and proceeded to phone-in a prosaic but overall pleasant speech about how we all have a bright future ahead of us, and should wear our Fulbright title “like a new middle name.” Then we had the run-down on Polish security, medical insurance, absentee ballots, etc. (Expat Living 101), followed by the opportunity to ask questions about US-Polish relations. I must admit, the questions of my newly acquired colleagues were intimidating: What were the reactions to the release of the previously buried Katyn massacre records by US Intelligence?; What action has been taken regarding the outdated Visa policy for Polish citizens to visit the States?; How does Lech Walesa’s endorsement of Romney affect US-Polish relations during the coming election? We received some phoned-in answers, and  then were politely escorted off the premises.

Not until we were back on the sidewalk, reunited with our electronic devices, did we learn that the US Ambassador in Libya had been murdered. (Remember that it was still 3 am EST when we entered the embassy, so the news had not been reported to the public.) Retrospectively, I'd imagine that the hyped up security and the tardiness of Ambassador Feinstein may have been due to this tragedy. When he was supposed to be speaking to us about bright futures, he was likely getting briefed on the horrific loss of a colleague.

I won’t denigrate the event any further by attempting to provide some literary emulsion about very real and recent loss, but I do think I need to write my condolences to the family and friends of Stevens, Smith, Doherty and Woods. I know words collapse under such pain, and I know that the sympathy of a stranger on a blog can do nothing to soothe a swollen heart. But I wish we’d known what had happened while in the embassy, so we could have dealt with security and a distraught ambassador with a bit more sympathy. Also so that we could have looked the staff in the eye and told them we wish them well, and we’re sorry. 

On a completely different note--now that I've done the "high road" part of this entry--I’d also like to use my burgeoning blog celebrity to reproach those who keep exploiting this loss for political fodder. My already poorly functioning Jewish stomach turns when I think of how this event became a campaign point before the bodies even reached home. While not particularly spiritual in any sense of the word, I would like to think some things are still respected, if not sacred, and life is one of them, particularly the undue loss of it.

In short, if I ever screw up my life enough to become famous or political, I genuinely hope I don’t die during an election year.

VIII. Ibis Budget: For tourists and the mentally insane! Book your stay today…

After six long hours swerving around potholes and construction (AKA speeding down a Polish highway), the big red Polski Bus arrived in Warsaw. I grabbed my backpack amongst the bricks of heroin (see previous post) and gestured wildly at a woman until she directed me to the correct tram. Nothing feels quite as rewarding as finding an unfamiliar address in an unfamiliar city, without resorting to a taxi or google maps. So I felt like a boss when I turned the corner and the hotel was looming over me. And even better when I entered the swanky lobby.

Smartly dressed professionals lounged about, arguing politics over martinis and fiddling with their electronics. As I admired the elegance of productivity stewing around me, an uncharacteristically chipper bellhop skipped over and removed my leadened backpack off my shoulders (then containing the weight of a fully functional laptop (::insert keening wail here::)). Delighted at my new lightness, I began to bounce around the lobby in circles singing “I’m like a bird,” followed by some much needed arm flapping. Mid-flap, a woman behind the counter offered me a glass of water. Free water! I snatched the paper cup and downed the sweet liquid before she could change her mind.  She laughed and offered me another glass. I scanned her face, suspicious, but her smile was blank as a Polish bagel. I helped myself to seconds. Thank you, US-Polish Fulbright CommissionWell done. Well done indeed.

Oh, how deep my naivete! What a bottomless, Nietzschean abyss! I soon learned there are two Ibis hotels in Warsaw: Ibis regular and Ibis Budget. Guess which one I stood in as a bellhop struggled with my backpack. Now guess which one the commission assigned to accommodate us. 

Free water!

The only kudos I can give Ibis Budget is its capacity for versatility. While Ibis regular can only serve as a comfortable and well-serviced accommodation for travelers, Ibis Diet can act as both hotel and psychiatric institution, which is an admittedly clever business model given the volatility of the current economy and the political history of Poland. After all, if the Soviets do ever return (knock on concrete), Ibis budget will still be running. That’s more than the real Ibis could say. 

So I grabbed a taxi to the other Ibis and checked in with the nurse on duty, who begrudgingly walked me down the ward to my room. 
Ibis Budget: don't be fooled by its cheery and colorful exterior...

The bed had a single, translucently thin sheet folded with hospital corners. The turbid odor of antiseptic spray choked and burned. The lights were broken. When I gestured to the nurse about it, she began maniacally banging the wall, which surprisingly wasn't a mental breakdown, but a moderately effective way to provoke the overhead fluorescent to flicker to life. Unfortunately, however, the spasming light was also accompanied by the most ingratiating buzzing noise. I think it must have been one of those frequencies only heard by those 25 and under they use to prevent loitering in Japan, because while I instantly cupped my hapless ears, she just stared at me, perplexed.  But at least now I could see enough find my way to the toilet, so I ignored her and stepped inside. Once that was accomplished, I immediately banged the wall to shut it off.

All the same, I appreciated anything horizontal after a long day of gooseback riding. I cracked open the starched white wafer over the bed and shimmied myself underneath. I didn’t even take off my socks.

My first night in Warsaw. The start of my Fulbright. And, despite everything, I was feeling good.

Cue music!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

VII. Bath Salts Geese and UFOs

About sixty-seven hours after landing in Wrocław, I mounted a bright red Polski Bus and galloped towards the promised commercial-land of Warsaw. For those of you with cars (or not in Poland), Polski Bus is the equivalent to Mega Bus essentially, except cheaper, cleaner and with free WiFi.  Also, the Polski Bus mascot is this methed-out goose instead of a British Lego man, or maybe it’s just a normal duck covered in pure white cocaine. Either way, it has to be the most demented cartoon animal I’ve ever laid eyes on. 

Since I’m incapable of reading in moving vehicles, I had a great deal of time to conjecture the potential applications of the cracked-out bird while in transit. Maybe Polski bus is secretly a drug trafficking operation, and all our baggage is currently surrounding a brick pyramid of uppers and downers and inbetweeners. (Why in the shape of a pyramid? Because drugs are expensive and often require forced labor and violence. Also because it’s the fanciest form of presenting luxury goods.)

Or maybe it’s one of those cross-marketing strategies, like when a car commercial simultaneously promotes the new James Bond flick, or a cereal mascot promotes the latest toy truck. The bird advertises for cheap transportation through eastern Europe while simultaneously endorsing inebriation. Talk about a perfect PR marriage.

Fancy things and sketchy schemes come in pyramids

Eastern Europeans + alcohol = magical memories

In the end, however, I concluded that the most likely motivation for the mascot is a matter of protection. I must admit that knowing a giant, crazy-eyed bird was staring out at our fellow commuters made me feel safer. Who the fuck would take on an angry red bus with a bath salts goose plastered across it? Nobody who isn’t already on bath salts. Other drivers will take one glance at those tweaking eyes and immediately picture their face getting pecked off. Which bites for them (pun absolutely intended), but also means that they will stay the fuck away from those of us under its protective wings.

Satisfied with this brilliant conclusion, I leaned back and began the only other activity that wouldn’t cause me to lose my lunch, or at least has a lower risk factor: people watching, namely the two men in front of me. I chose these two dudes not only because of the convenience of their proximity, but because I felt immediately drawn to their oversized t-shirts with ironic geek humor, and the family-size bag of the Polish equivalent to Cheetoes ensconced between their seats. (One of the t-shirts said “Nanotechnology is huge” in miniscule letters. I unfortunately don’t remember the other one.) For the first four hours of the bus ride, Louis Skolnickski and Gilbert Lowellski watched different episodes of the X-Files on their laptops while munching on their Czytὀwski (my spurious name for Polish Cheetoes). Why they couldn’t watch the same episodes on the same device was beyond me, but I admired their ardent commitment to some sort of methodology I couldn’t fathom, one that clearly required risible inefficiency. Because, to me, that is the definition of geek culture: the ability to convert mere recreational activity into a structured, scheduled undertaking saturated with obligation, time management, and hard work. After these guys finished their respective X-isodes, they argued over the more contentious plot points in their respective episodes: “Kanapki trudne wszystko SCULLY otwarte zabawa FBI impresja zimno pada WEREWOLF (pronounced vir-voulp) dobry PARANORMAL.” (Obviously the Polish in this conversation is likely not a direct transcription, given that I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what they were saying. This is simply what it sounded like to me. Either way, it was brilliant.) I could tell they meant business. I would’ve given anything to participate.

Is her passion for the paranormal as fiery as her flaming red locks?  I think so.

 I don’t mean this passage as a jab at sci-fi culture, geekdom or The X-Files, especially since I openly partake in all such compulsive behaviors. Sometimes I even dredge out my Magic decks (yes, as in Magic: The Gathering) and battle my friends, so I have absolutely no leverage here. I only want to convey that I loved witnessing this couple because it reminded me how geekdom truly transcends all languages and cultural barriers just as much as dance, music, or any other form of self-expression. And I think everyone’s had that moment in which they see someone else of their minority group, and feel overwhelmed with a sense of comradeship. (Can I use that word in a blog about Poland? Too late now.) You know the feeling: you’ve been so alone, carrying this identity marker all by yourself, and then you randomly spot someone transgender, or red-headed, or Sikh, or deaf, or obsessed with the sport of curling and you want to yell “Yes! You! Yes! I am one of you! I am one of you!” Well, that was the sensation that flooded me while watching The X-Files over their pudgy shoulders. I didn’t shout this, or even say it to my Scully-fantasizing duo. But I still spent the rest of my day filled with a sense of belonging in an estranged land. And for that I will be forever grateful to Gillian Anderson and the Californication dude.

Finally reconnected with the universe!

I’m back! And, let me tell you, it has been an uphill battle to get here. NEVER BREAK YOUR MACBOOK IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Seriously. Don’t do it. Don’t even read this, lest for some reason your Macbook gets any ideas of dissent…Keep your macbook in line. Tell it who’s boss. Remind it that it would be nothing without you, only a shitty piece of scrap metal with radioactive poison inside. Remember: you bought your computer. You own it. If need be, smash other machines in front of it: fans, cell phones, old radios. Bring it to visit a junkyard and whisper gently “This is where you’ll end up someday.” Whatever it takes.

After a week of battling computer repair “professionals,” I finally acquiesced and ordered a new laptop from the US. A day later, I received a message in Polish asking me to fill out some forms (in Polish, of course). Then a separate email the following day with more forms providing the exact same information. Then a phone call saying my package is being held in custody until some customs fees are paid. Then a form for customs fees. Then another phone call. Then, for some reason, I find out my computer isn’t coming after all. At this point, I rallied an entire team of Polish speakers from both sides of the ocean to come to my rescue, led by the valiant and honorable Henryka Manes. Henryka—I love you. My mother loves you. Everyone who has to interact with me loves you, even if they don’t know that you are the source of my tolerance and wisdom. All I can say is that, if karma is real, you will have your pick of the litter in your next life. Supermodel/brain surgeon with a bestselling novel and a Nobel Peace Prize? Consider it done.

The only good I can say came from the experience (other than Henryka’s karma upgrade) is my newfound appreciation for the tragicomedy of the Absurd. Polish bureaucracy has allowed me to understand why we should talk to each other in trash cans or buried up to our necks, waiting for someone that will never arrive. Such activities now seem utterly sane and productive after dealing with Polish postal services. Beckett was probably just waiting for a delivery from Polska Poczta. It would explain everything.

Brought to you by Polish Postal Services

Anyway, now that I’m back I will post the many, many entries I’ve written by hand in the past four weeks, but had yet to transcribe onto my computer. Don’t worry: I’ll pace them out so you don’t feel overwhelmed and stop reading altogether. But we have a lot of ground to make up, and little time. So, with no more ado, let's go back to mid-September…