Wednesday, 28 November 2007


Knee deep in snow and no chance in hell of being ‘outdoor active’. Yes there is skiing, but that’s hardly an option at 6pm on a Tuesday night. In fear of having my arse permanently stuck to the desk chair during the dreary dark evenings, endlessly surfing through YouTube and checking out the latest clips Wong sends me the links to (although I highly recommend this Russian gem), I decided to join a volleyball team. It’s mixed, it’s free, and it’s at the local primary school. The team is run by the teachers who work there. Got in through connections (Michal’s mate Szymon teaches maths there). Now when you think primary school, you usually think cozy one-to-two storey type building, with classes of 25 and lots of paper cut-out flowers stuck in windows. This school is a bit different. It is four levels if you count the underground gym bit and caters for 1200 primary school kids. There are over 35 teachers and classes are divided from year 3 along high-school mechanics, i.e. different teacher for PE, different teacher for maths, different teacher for chemistry, Polish etc. The school is equipped with two gymnasiums (basketball court, volley ball net, indoor soccer goals, handball, and bits and pieces needed for gymnastics), an atrium, showers, changing rooms AND this leave-your-winter-boots storage solution thingy so that children don’t slosh around in their wet footwear round the corridors. They even have special bags for their slippers or ‘dry shoes’ that they bring with them and hang up in the morning. There is also a portiere who sits in the school’s lobby and the floors smell of lemon scented cleaning detergent.

The teachers have a shit common room though, with one photocopier and only 15 or so chairs for the whole lot of them. They have to bring in their own mugs, coffee and have no regular access to their own computers or the internet. There are nice curtains though and plenty of pot plants. They also get paid next to nothing. When I say next-to-nothing, I don’t mean the usual teacher whinge. I mean next to nothing. Szymon, in order to make a standard living wage, has to tutor privately about an additional 25 hours per week. Lucky he is a maths teacher. They’re in big demand. Imagine if he taught home-ec. He’d be rooted.

As for volleyball? I am officially the midget retard. Amongst burly men who are over 1.90m tall, who whack the ball like jackhammers, and who block volleys in a way that make me look away with fear, I have come to accept I may be there because everyone is too polite to tell me to rack off. Stuff it. My ego is intact and I am having fun. Only once did I feel like vomiting out of sheer horror and embarrassment for being so completely shit. With every week I get a little better. For example yesterday I even managed to score 4 points. In two hours (for those who know anything about volleyball – that’s a really bloody awful average).

foot locker with shoe bags

some of the jackhammers

volleyball does not have to be poncey

midget retard

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

more winter tales

This one is from last week, before the snow really fell in Krakow. I needed to get to Nowy Sacz which is some 100km south of town. I didn’t feel like waiting for the tram to take me to the bus stop that would take me to Nowy Sacz. So I decided to ride by bike to the bus stop and chain it to a fence. Now, the temperature wasn’t all that inviting. In fact it was about +2 degrees. My bike thought it was finished for the season. I thought differently. With a million layers of clothes and a scarf covering half my head, I managed to get to my destination which was some 3ks away. I hopped on the bus and was glad to be warm.

Having finished my business in Nowy Sacz and nine hours later the town was knee deep in snow. I was on a bus that was snailing its way back to Krakow at a pace of about 50ks an hour. With a two hour delay I reached Krakow which by this stage had turned into a massive white doona. I scratched my head and wondered what to do with my bike, which I barely found hidden amidst a tonne of white fluff. I started to wheel it and rang Michal to maybe come pick me up. As I hung up I felt disappointed at my lack of trying to rely on myself in a winter blizzard. The disappointment did not last long. Quickly the conviction was formed that I could indeed fight the elements. I got on the sucker and started peddling home.

On a bike with slim line city tires, no gears and only a back peddle brake, I started to think I was going to crack my head on the edge of a footpath (zero helmet, warm winter beanie instead). But the Ukrainian machine rolled on, trenching through the snow like the plough it was not. Michal found me a kilometre away from home, tapped his head with his forefinger exclaiming I really was retarded, took my heavy bag off my back, got back into the car and drove off yelling “I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun!!” Right he was, because I was grinning like a mad idiot happy that I was RIDING MY BIKE IN THE SNOW!!

I only slipped about 10 times and fully stacked it twice. A week has gone by and I do not have pneumonia. Success.

drawing made on an envelope - excuse its shitness

drawing on some more scrap - you get the idea

about 11:30pm, after the ride and before a hot bath - pretty!

desnowing - an activity done by all who have no garage

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

thick socks required

I enjoy a hike in the mountains. A heavy pack, fresh air, sore quads, beautiful semi-alpine scenery, utter exhaustion at the end. Hiking in winter is even more pleasurable for the abovementioned reasons plus many more: frozen snot, constantly slipping in the waist deep snow, sliding on your arse, drinking cold water in minus 5 temperatures, reading the ‘warning avalanches’ signs, sweating inside your wet weather gear, wondering if there is a hungry bear still not in hibernation. And the mind blowing landscape. Nothing beats it. I had an excellent weekend.

Krakow is also covered in snow. If this is early to mid November we will all be so rooted by December.

We went hiking with Konrad and Aga who came down from Wroclaw on Friday night to our place. They returned home on the Sunday after the hike. The trip usually takes 2.5 hours from Krakow to Wroclaw on the freeway. It took them 7. The ploughs hadn’t cleared the freeway from the snow and all the heavy semi-trailers couldn't make it up the small inclines. Plus they were still on their summer tires. For those not in the know – you have to switch your tires to winter ones for the snow (deeper grooves), for better traction. Because the snow has come early, tire change places are booked up with massive queues and there are plenty of spazzos slipping and sliding all over Krakow’s streets.

this is the mountain shelter we stayed at on Sat night - at about 1000m

first icicles - they can be lethal in the city and pierce skulls

ascend begins


in the end there was no need for cramp-ons because the snow was still very fluffy -
good thing too beause we didn't have any

Monday, 5 November 2007

duck and quince

Today was the first day where the temperature dropped below zero. Home projects have therefore become activated. To keep the body and mind sane. What is on our agenda? Homemade quince tincture! Michal even bought scales this year. The bastards are really hard to cut and have a shitload of seeds. But the effect is worth it. The fermentation processes will last at least a couple of weeks. Just in time for snowy evenings and visiting friends. We have enough spirit (98% pure alcohol) and quince fruit to make about 15 litres of liqueur with it. It is delicious and not at all strong (about 25% alcohol) once the whole process is completed. Michal’s dad is a master at it so he has been getting plenty of phone calls from his son who is not always sure of the proportions.

first you cut, then you remove the seeds, then you slice

then you weigh - 1 kilo quince : 1 kilo sugar

you then place sugar and quince slices and let it sit for a couple of days
before you pour the spirit in - the sugar reaction forces all the juices to flow!

And since we are on the topic of winter culinary delights, lucky we visited Michal’s cousins who live in the country the other day. They have plenty of farmyard animals including some 20 cows (they run a small dairy farm). Hospitable as all hell they gave us a freshly killed duck. City folk know bugger all about real healthy food out in their parts, hence the poultry present. We baked it on Sunday (we finally got an oven) and my was it delicious. Our first duck and such success!

now you see it waddle?

now you don't!

first you boil a kilo of fresh beetroot -
then you shred and stew with lemon and fresh cracked pepper and salt -
a must with any duck

and here are some animals we did not kill

Friday, 2 November 2007

all saints' day

Celebrating the dead on November the 1st is a massive tradition in Poland. So massive in fact that it is a public holiday. When I was told stories about it by my parents whilst sitting round the table at Oakie, I used to think how freaky the concept was. You spend a lot of the day at the cemetery, walking around, looking at graves lighting a candle or two. I thought the idea was very creepy, morose and unnecessary. Why would anyone want to spend a day free from work in such a fashion?

But then I experienced it for myself. And it is, I think, my favourite celebrated Catholic day in the calendar. Even better than Christmas. Really. There is no gluttony, no unnecessary consumption and overeating, no fussing about presents, worrying about how clean the house will be for the holiday, the right height of the tree, the mandatory church going or whether there is enough of this or that. All Saints’ Day has all the good bits of Christmas though – the family gatherings, the lighting of candles, the atmosphere that there is something special in the air ...

You arrive at the cemetery early in the day with flowers and candles and adorn the graves of your loved ones who have passed away. You walk around visiting the graves of your ancestors who you never met, but your grandma is there next to you explaining to you your family tree. She tells you about her dad, about how he used to hide pigs from the Germans during the Occupation, about Fred who had cancer and died at 32 and about her mother in law who used to live with the young couple until the first kid was born. You then run into some distant aunts whom you’ve never met but the fact that you are standing in front of a mutually known grave is enough of a reason to receive hugs and kissed and well wishes for the future. The vibe is a happy one. There is no sadness in the air. People are happy to talk about the deceased they have come to say hello to. You tug at your heavy autumn coat and start wandering that maybe cremation is not all that is cracked up to be. It’s nice to be visited. Even in death.

Then after a hearty soup and some chatting at home you wait until it gets dark and with the daylight saving being finished, the wait isn’t all that long. You again rug up in the coat, some boots and a beanie and head out to the graves once more with the family in tow. And this is when the real magic begins. You enter through the gates and momentarily your breath is taken away. You forget how splendid and enchanting the place can be. It is aglow with all the candles that have been lit during the day, with hundreds of families wandering quietly lost in their thoughts, and the smell of fresh chrysanthemums suspended in the autumn air. The graves shine with splendour, maybe even better than any Christmas tree. Better, because the candles and the flowers are a sign of how much the deceased are still remembered and how much they are missed. There is no silly talk of ghosts, scary movies or morbidity. You walk through that quiet wonderland and slowly you are not afraid of death anymore.

I watched the kids being led by their parents and thought how lucky they were, to be shown that dying is normal but that it also can be celebrated.

The mutual reflection of all who were visiting seemed to me that evening extremely powerful. It is pretty extraordinary to realise that Polish society is so strong and deeply rooted that it can think about death collectively. Even if it be just for that one day a year.

the little glass candle holders can keep a flame going for hours

these photos don’t do it justice

at the grave of the 'lost soldier'