Saturday, September 7, 2013

Final Weeks

In the past few weeks, I've become a bit lazy about the blog because my life took a turn for the boring.  After Florence, my focus was primarily on work, with no real trips or exciting adventures outside of my daily Krakow routine to speak of.  However, that changed when my replacement for the office, Matt, arrived.

A few weeks ago, there was a leak in my apartment.  It resulted in some discoloration on the walls and a part of the ceiling, but was quickly repaired and did not really cause me any inconvenience aside from putting a towel on the floor for one night.  The company that owns the apartment wanted to repaint, though.  Actually, I think they've wanted to repaint before and haven't had a chance, but this provided them a good excuse.  So, they wrote me an email with a trade proposal.

They proposed that for the last week of my stay, I get to change to another unit two doors down the street and one floor lower.  I accepted this offer; it looked like a good unit and would give me a reason to start packing.  On Sunday Sept 1, I moved.

The new apartment was huge.  Gigantic.  I actually just refer to it as "mały Wawel," or "little Wawel" after the castle in Krakow.  It was 1,500 square feet and had beds for 11, plus a couch.  The three bedrooms were each enormous, and it had two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a dining room to boot.  I recognize that to the Americans reading this post, 1,500 square feet may not seem all that huge.  Remember that my usual apartment is about 480 square feet, and also remember that it's quite common to have a smaller dwelling space in the center of a European downtown.

The new apartment was so huge, in fact, that I invited Matt, his wife, and his nine-month-old son to come live with me in it rather than staying in their hotel.  They accepted, and for five days we became one big happy family.  I'm now writing this on the plane ride back home [note: published one day later].  You'd think that sleeping in the same apartment as a nine-month-old might pose problems for someone like me, who desires a regular and complete sleep cycle every night.  However, I never heard him at night; they slept at one end of the apartment and I at the other, and between the doors and the distance he never woke me up.

I also invited some of my Polish friends to visit so that I could see them one last time before I left, and they just kept looking around saying "łał" (wow) and looking at the bedrooms.  I mentioned something about it to my coworkers and they said that it was likely a unit for a collection of students, as that would likely be the only way to afford it in the center of town.  It clearly was a suite design; I'm not sure of the intended residents.

It's about time for some pictures of this thing, so here are a few phone photos I grabbed:

Note the last picture was the room I stayed in, and you can count four beds in it.  There was also a small balcony.

Now that I'm on my flight home, fortune has once again smiled upon me.  I was annoyed upon boarding my transatlantic flight because there was a small box taking up precious foot room in my seat.  I figured that travel is horrible anyway and I would just have to deal with it for the duration of the nine-hour flight.  However, after about two hours, luck struck.  One of the flight attendants asked if me and the lady next to me were travelling together, I said no, and the attendant said that I could move a few rows up to where there was a group of three empty seats.  SOLD!  There is very little that will cause me to give up my window seat and move closer to a baby (the row in front of me), but having this much leg room and a separate seat for my stuff will do it!  There's another guy in my row, but he's on the aisle and he has a vacant seat for himself as well.  No point in being greedy, but having two seats and no one to for fight armrests on a transatlantic flight is amazing.

Another bonus point for Lufthansa: after lunch they came around with drinks.  At first I was going to decline, but then the German flight attendant and I had a conversation:

"Can I offer zoo anyzing?  Cognac?  Bailey's?"
"No, I'm fine, than---I'm sorry, did you say, 'Bailey's'"
"Zes, Bailey's"
"Sure, I'll have some of that!"

Anytime I can get a free glass of Bailey's Irish Cream, it's hard to say no.

I'll have another post about re-entry into the US, but I think the transatlantic flight officially ends my European adventures for the summer.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Florence: Day 2

I mentioned something in my first post on Florence that I need to expand upon a little to begin.  The SD card that stores the pictures on my camera died this weekend.  Getting the photos off after Florence: Day 1 was a little scary, so I made sure I had everything and then formatted the drive.  I took a couple practice shots and thought everything was good.  Not so.  I'm afraid at present, all my photos from the second day in and around Florence are gone.  I also don't have many phone shots for this time, since I had anticipated no WiFi access throughout and thus it made more sense to get the better photos on the actual camera.

What I now lack in photos, I will make up for in links and descriptions.  Apologies for the extra work on your part, loyal reader.

As mentioned previously, Day 2 was to be my "out of Florence" day.  I had booked a 12-hour tour with Walkabout Tours, and they were pretty good.  We started out in a large, mercifully air-conditioned bus at 8:30 AM.

Our first stop was the hilltop town of Siena.  Some of you may remember your crayon boxes as a small child, where there may have been a color named "burnt siena".  Guess where that comes from?  If you look at some of the photos in the Wiki link above, you'll see where the crayon got its name.

The main square in Siena is a seashell-shaped, and twice a year hosts the Palio horse race.  It just happened that the second time when it's held is August 16th, and we were visiting August 17th.  Our guide said it was a little quieter in the town because everyone had been out partying so hard the night before after the race was run.  It's a race with three laps around the main square (on a clay track they put down especially for it), but the prep lasts for months and the party lasts for days.  I think they're just looking for an excuse to party.

Our guide in Siena introduced a couple of concepts that echoed throughout the entire journey.  The first was that Italy, as a country, is relatively young, especially compared to the towns and city-states that comprise it.  It's much more likely that Italians think of themselves as from a town rather than as from Italy.  This is especially true in Siena, which appears to have a gigantic chip on its shoulder against Florence.  Even though our guide was very used to foreigners, you could tell she had a strong worldview.  At one point, she was lecturing a small boy being carried by his mom about how the boys in Siena walk 8 km per day to school, and grow up to be big and strong.  Yes, really.

Another concept seen throughout the tour is symbols of power.  Every time that a city changed hands, about every few centuries (unless your name is Medici), the new rulers built something to show off.  It could be a cathedral, a fortress, a plaza, statues, lots of stuff.  Most of it still survives, and that's one of the reasons Italy has some of the great plazas and churches. Another reason Tuscany in particular has so many churches is because they were bankers and kept trying to show how pious they were, despite the Vatican not approving of the use of interest.

After Siena, we went to a family-owned, organic farm and winery, where we had lunch.  90% of what we ate was made on the farm, and everything that make is organic.  Holy cow was that good.  Olive Garden will never be the same.  I do have a picture here, because I was just grabbing it quickly as we were being served:

Wine was free-flowing at the table, although it was all of the dry variety.

After the farm lunch, we went to the nearby town of San Gimignano.  This town is unique because many of the house-towers survive and make for a picturesque skyline.

The original Italian loyalty branched from the family, to the point where families in the same town were fighting each other.  (Montagues and Capulets, anyone?)  When families wanted to show off, they built a tower, which could also be used in defense if you picked a fight with the wrong family.  When a family was defeated and run out of town, their tower was destroyed.  Hence, many towers were destroyed.  In San Gimignano, they passed a law, though, that the family tower had to be shorter than the town bell tower.  Thus, this shifted the loyalty from showing off for the family to showing off for the town.  This is part of the reason their towers survive so well.

After San Gimignano, we went to Pisa, where you can guess what we saw.  I actually got to climb the leaning tower, which was a very fun experience.  The tower is the cathedral's bell tower and is hollow inside.  The staircase is along the outside edge, and climbing it is a fun inner-ear test.  First your going uphill really steep, then it almost feels like you're going downhill but you keep climbing.  Repeat seven stories up.  The tilt at the top is about 5 degrees, so you definitely notice it, but it's not like you feel as though you'll go sliding off.  There are fences just in case.

As I was standing there on top of the tower, I couldn't help but remember that this is the place where Galileo supposedly tossed bowling balls to the ground in an attempt to prove laws of gravity.  I was climbing the same stairs as Galileo!

The thing about Pisa's tower is that it's only one of three huge buildings of marble in a giant plaza.  The cathedral and baptistery are also gorgeous, done in the same style (not tilting) and absolutely shine in the sunlight.  The plaza is called the "Field of Miracles" because of its beauty.

Additionally, the tower in Pisa isn't the only building that leans, it's just the most famous.  Other buildings lean for the same reason the tower does: the unsteady soil.  The only difference is that people don't go to Pisa to see a block-shaped building leaning by 3 degrees; they go for the beautiful marble tower that makes people nervous to stand under it.

Overall, Florence was really fun.  The Florence card is a must if you plan on seeing more than 3-4 museums.  Tuscany is beautiful, and the food is amazing.  I'm glad I went, but I feel like I would have appreciated so much more with a better understanding of art history.  Then again, if I actually had such an understanding, I probably never would have made it out of the first museum!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Florence: Day 1

What a day in Florence!

First of all, my Facebook contest fizzled.  I've been outsmarted by the location tracking system on Facebook. So, my first clue was also followed by "in Florence, Tuscany", which made the geography game a bit of a wash.  The delay in posting has been due to difficulties with my internet connection and lack of free time, however.

The hotel I stayed at, Il Bargellino, blurs the line between hotel and hostel.  I had no toilet, but I did have a shower and sink.  The toilet was upstairs, and there wasn't been any problem with getting access to it.  I also had no air conditioning, and Florence is fairly warm, but I'm honestly pretty used to it after spending so much time in Krakow.  Still, some of the museums felt mighty good.  I think visitors coming here would say this hotel is the most amazing hostel ever or a horrid hotel.  The TripAdvisor site on the hotel seems to follow that pattern with reviews.

I had two full days in Florence, and I decided to do one inside the city and one outside the city.  This was inside the day for inside the city.  I had somewhat reluctantly purchased a "Florence Card" which basically prepays a lot of museums for you.  A lot of museums also accept reservations, and the Florence card gets you into the reservation line.  It has some other benefits as well: Wifi access at various points in the city, bus fare, and generally people recognize the card and know what you want.

The card was expensive: 72 Euros.  However, after spending a day with it, it's worth every Euro-cent.  I'm not sure how I did on the admission fares; I think I about broke even or maybe came out a few Euros ahead.  What's really worth it though is the time savings.  Take a look at the line from my second stop, the main cathedral ("Duomo").

I would have had to wait in that line to go up into the dome if I hadn't had the card.  There were other times that lines like this were repeated.  I probably saved at least 3 hours of waiting in line by using this card.

I started with Florence's most famous statue: Michelangelo's David at the Accademia Gallery.  After having to actually acquire my Florence card at a nearby tourist information office, getting actually to David took about 10 minutes once I reached the museum.  This included a metal detector, probably because a deranged guy attacked David with a hammer back in the 90s.  They're really picky about photos of the statue.

Also attached to this museum is a small museum of musical instruments.  I happened to come across a beautiful, stunning viola by Stradavarius, but no photos were allowed.  I believe it's on this page, about 3/4s of the way down.

After getting the Accademia Gallery, I went to the Cathedral, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  I didn't actually go inside, but rather went and got my prepaid tickets to the dome.  The dome is a striking feature of the city, and you'll see it later in some of my landscape shots.  It was a long way up, but the views were pretty good.  We also got to see the inside of the dome, which is painted with allegories of heaven and hell.

The only bad part about the Cathedral was that I got stuck in the sun for about 20 minutes.  This was supposed to be an "inside day" as far as I was concerned, so I hadn't brought sunscreen.  I appear to have escaped serious damage, though.  I also received tickets to the Baptistry (a separate building), but the line (even with reservations) for it was so long that I skipped it.

After the Cathedral, I headed over to the Bargello Palace, a national museum.  Here I got to see a few more Michelangeos as well as some interesting other sculptures and paintings.

After the Bargello Palace, I realized I had made a critical error.  My next planned museum was, in fact, across town.  I decided to do some switching around of plans, and went to the Galileo Science Museum.  It's really more like a science history museum, as they have all manner of scientific instruments from centuries gone by.  Among my photos, you'll see Galileo's telescopes (two small ones on the wall).  I also saw Galileo's middle finger (yes, really), but do not have a photo of it.  More on that later.

After the Galileo museum, I headed to the Boboli Gardens.  This is basically a garden with a lot of sculptures in it, and a few cool grottos.  It's essentially the backyard to a palace, and the palace has four or five separate museums itself.  The palace did not allow photos, however, so even though I got to see some of the "ducal treasures," I don't have photographic evidence of it.  In some ways, it reminded me of Schoenbrunn in Vienna.  Here are some garden photos:

After the Boboli Gardens, I went to the Uffizi Gallery, which is a gallery of famous paintings.  Again, no photos, but I saw some very recognizable paintings.  The most famous is probably The Birth of Venus.  This museum was enormous.  I am in no way giving the paintings the credit they deserve, and it still took me about two hours to go through what I could.  I also got to see some of their foreign collection.  Spanish students, do you remember that self-portrait of Velazquez that we all see in textbooks?  Yeah, I saw it in person.

After the Uffizi Gallery, I went to the Pallazo Vecchio, which is another palace in the center of the city.  Again, I got to go up in a tower, this time at sunset, to get some awesome scenic photos.  The PalazzoVecchio also has a lot of paintings and sculptures in it.

At this point, it was time for me to make my way back.  But, as I was passing by the Cathedral again, I noticed something strange.  There was still a (short) line for the Baptistery.  I had my ticket conveniently in my pocket, so in I went.  The ceiling is absolutely gorgeous.  Take a look:

Are you noticing a pattern yet?  I'm finally done at this point - after having breezed through 6 museums and 2 Cathedral exhibits in one day.  This would not be possible without the Florence card, which cuts down considerably on the trouble in acquiring tickets and getting through lines.  It's also good for three days, even though I'm only using it for one.  If I were here three days, it would be a no-brainer to get it.

I recognized millions of dollars worth of artwork, and I didn't recognize but probably 10% of what I walked by.  I may well have walked by a billion dollars worth of artwork, sculpture, and antiques, to say nothing of the property.  I certainly got to see a lot of Florence!

The second day will be of the Tuscan countryside.  Yes, I'm doing it via tour, but with only two days to figure everything out, I think it's better that I'm guided around rather than get stuck in some small village waiting for an hour for a bus.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Some of you may have noticed that it's been awhile since you've heard from me on this blog.  Simply put, Laurel has been living a much more exciting life than I have been the past few weeks.  While I've been mostly working, Laurel had been trying her best to become Krakow's most over-qualified tour guide by learning every fact at every museum in Krakow.  Now that she's back stateside, I'll have to start living a more exciting life and posting more.

This weekend has two simultaneous festivals going on in Krakow: the pierogi festival and the lazy summer festival.

The pierogi festival is just amazing.  It's not overly-large, with about 15 vendors of pierogi.  However, there is a tremendous amount of variety in that pierogi.  Sure, you have the normal ones: meat, ruskie (cheese and potato), cabbage and mushroom, blueberry, but you also have more exotic choices: duck, Mexican, salmon, feta cheese and sun-dried tomato, banana, etc.  Have I mentioned that Poland likes garlic?

The lazy summer festival has a different variety of food, including Spanish, Brazilian, Hungarian, and organic Polish food.  It also has plenty of wine and a long list of music gigs, as it just seems to always have something different on while I'm there.

That last one is a little difficult to see: it's a guy slicing a whole leg of Jamon Iberico.  Click the link to see how much it would cost to buy one.  I dare you.

I also went down to Oskar Schindler's factory today, since I hadn't been there before.  Laurel has posted in more detail about that place earlier, so I didn't take as many photos.  I was intrigued to see what they actually made, though.  The reason the factory could stay open was because it made fuses for the German artillery, but when not doing that they made pots and pans.  Yup, boring stuff.  They made a lot of it though, and sold a bunch of them on the black market to have extra funds.

This week will be a short week at work due to the holiday on Thursday.  I'll be taking a side excursion to a fabulous but as of yet undisclosed location.  We'll have some fun seeing if anyone can guess where I am.  There might be prizes.

Edit: I should mention one more thing about Schindler's factory.  Throughout it all, there were many, many photos of Krakow in Nazi occupation.  There were many photos where I could immediately recognize the setting, maybe even having walked by there hundreds of times.  To see it draped in Nazi decor or with an artillery gun sitting in the middle of it was unsettling.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Re-Re-Entry: Hitting the Ground Running

I haven't posted for the last couple of days because the craziness of my internship offers and beginning work has consumed most of my time.  If you don't know the story, the short version is I had three offers to choose from by the night before I left Poland, and I had to interview, choose, and start orientation all within 36 hours of getting home.  I really couldn't ask for better, though.  I am actually thankful that I've had some structure in these past two days and something to get up for in the mornings.  Otherwise, I think I would have gone crazy in the house by myself and with trying to figure out what I needed to do next.

It feels different coming back this time than last time.  Maybe it makes a difference being out of the country twice as long.  Here's what struck me:

  • My first thought on entering the Fort Wayne airport terminal: "It's FREEZING in here!" (American-strength A/C.  I actually was pretty miserable being in an air-conditioned conference room for a lot of the day--even moreso than normal.  I've had to turn off the A/C in the house because I couldn't stand having it on.)
  • The house felt enormous when I walked in the door.
  • I've had to make sure I turned on the light switches correctly.
  • I have the windows open just for noise.
  • Speaking of which, there are cicadas outside.
  • And lawn mowers.  I've been hearing those instead of horse-drawn carriages or golf carts passing by.
  • The drink I had at my lunch out yesterday looked HUGE!  And I got a refill!
  • There are suddenly many more people of color.
  • There are also suddenly more large people. (sorry, but I've noticed :-( )
  • Egg yolks are yellow instead of orange.
I've also been thinking about things I found that I really missed while in Poland, as well as things I will miss about Kraków/Poland/Europe now that I'm home.

Happies for being back in the States:
  • My own bed.  Seriously, I don't think a bed has ever felt as good as it did on Wednesday night.  My body thinking it was 4 AM when I went to bed may have had something to do with that, though.
  • The US: the land of free water, free refills, and public drinking fountains!
  • I know I just went on about not liking A/C, but having it at night to help me sleep is AMAZING.
  • Pandora
  • Clothes dryer
  • Dishwasher
And I'm sad I left these things behind:
  • Real, fresh fruits and vegetables, any time I want
  • Bathroom stall doors opening outward, not inward
  • Let's face it: it's cheaper in Poland
  • Decent beer
  • I'm missing the Pierogi Festival right now.  :-(
  • And of course, the Rynek Główny, in all its beauty in the evenings.  I will miss this the most.
Now, I must have some more of that wonderful sleep.  I had a lot to take in today. :-)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Return to Zakopane

What a last weekend I had!  So much fun, but so much energy required! Our friends from the UK, Quartny and Sagar, arrived in Kraków on Friday, and I showed them around town.  Andy joined us when he was done with work.  I'm glad they really enjoyed seeing Wawel castle and some other parts of the Old Town (perhaps a little too much, as they really took to Polish vodka).

After exploring a little more of the city on Saturday, we left for Zakopane by bus late Saturday afternoon.  Andy's experience from making this trip last year helped the entire process go smoothly.  We have Sarah, who was kind of like Andy's guide on his trip last year, to thank for Andy’s know-how.  She is still providing help!

When we got to Zakopane, we found a place for dinner, and went to bed fairly early.  We wanted plenty of rest for the hiking on Sunday!  Unfortunately, Q had not been getting very much sleep the past couple of nights, so she needed a lot of coffee to keep her going for the weekend.

The 9-kilometer climb to Morskie Oko lake was fairly easy.  It was on the paved road, and the only things we had to watch out for were the horse-drawn wagons that passed by periodically.  The wagons seemed like a good idea for families with strollers or those who are older or disabled, but I couldn’t help but think that some of the people riding were just being lazy.  Maybe I’ve become an endurance event snob…

In any case, the weather was a little warm but generally beautiful.  The lake was just as gorgeous as Andy's pictures were.  I wish I could describe it all with words, but neither those nor photos really do it justice!

We continued hiking around lake, at which point the traveling became very rocky, and got to the foot of what Andy calls the "Eternal Stair,” which would lead us to the upper mountain lake, Czarny Staw (CHAR-nih STAHF).

The “stairs” are maybe a half-mile climb up rocks placed in a vaguely stair-like pattern.  I certainly was the slowest one of the group on this part, and I couldn't help but think of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum going into Mordor as I was climbing.  It was definitely a workout.

The view from the upper lake was worth it.  It also made wading into the cold, clear mountain water feel amazing.

As we were discussing our plans for the hike, Andy and I were getting a bit worried that Quartny and Sagar might make us hike all the way to Slovakia.  This would have added another 3 hours to the hiking, probably.  
Although we had convinced them not to go to Slovakia, our friends were not content to stop at the upper lake.  We had seen some white patches on the mountain from afar, and Q and Sagar were heading around Czarny Staw to settle a debate as to whether it was snow or just some salt deposits.  Andy and I followed after resting a bit.  I was convinced that it couldn't be snow; it was simply too hot, even at our altitude.  I was wrong.

We had hiked a long way, and it was nothing but rocks after we had reached Morskie Oko (the first lake), so my legs were starting to give way on the way back down the Eternal Stair.  Luckily, we stopped to rest and eat some snacks at the inn on the near side of Morskie Oko before we made the roughly two-hour walk back down to the entrance.

Here we are--triumphant hikers!--before we headed back down.

By the time we rode the shuttle bus back to Zakopane proper, we were HUNGRY.  I don't think the food consumed equaled the epic four-person platter Andy and company ate last year, but I had a goodly amount of the region’s famous smoked mountain sheep cheese with my dinner.
When the feasting was over, we stayed out to enjoy the delights of the main strip for a while longer, but most of the shops were closing for the night.  After a good night's rest we tried souvenir shopping again in the morning, with more success.  We departed Zakopane for Kraków about 11 AM on Monday.

The sights of rural Poland on our return journey...

The last bit of fun we could fit in with Q and Sagar was a big main meal on the Main Square and a little help with their final Polish souvenir shopping.  I think they enjoyed their Poland vacation very much, and we certainly enjoyed spending last weekend with them.  But my time in Poland is also coming to an end.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chocolate Chip Cookies

As promised, I have an update from last weekend.  Although it was very hot, Andy and I had a fun couple of days.  Saturday we got to do two fun, touristy activities we had been waiting for an opportunity to do.  One of them was a riverboat cruise on the Vistula.

The other was the Hi-Flyer Balloon.  At a maximum height of 180 m, it gave great views of the city.  I thought it was even better than the views from Kościuszko Mound, because it was right in the center of the city instead of far out to one side.

Sunday's main goal was to make the chocolate chip cookies Andy had been planning since we arrived in Poland!  We finally had gathered all the ingredients, and it was time to use the vanilla extract which we had infusing in the cupboard these past few weeks. Sunday was hotter than Saturday, so although baking gave us something to do without going out into the heat, turning the oven on did not help the apartment's temperature. Oh well. It was worth it!

We made several batches, as we were leaving room for both error and extra taste-testing... Hey, we were working with metric and other strange measurement systems, so we had to make arrangements!  Have you ever measured butter in grams?  The first batch turned out more like cookie sludge, which looked disgusting, but oh, did it taste good!  (Imagine warmed, half-baked cookie dough. Yep, that's what I'm talking about!)  After that, we adjusted our amount of butter and flour and the rest turned out pretty nicely.  We had about 5 dozen in all.

Our vanilla extract was ready!

Sunday evening, we took some of the cookies to our friends to whose house we visited last summer.  They were delighted!  They said more than once that the cookies were better than last year's.  (Last year, we took them Subway cookies).  Of course homemade > Subway's.

The rest of the cookies (minus four for safe-keeping...) went to Andy's office on Monday, where they were promptly devoured.  Several people commented about how delicious they were, and one or two people wanted the recipe.  It is worthy to note once again that chocolate chip cookies don't really exist in Poland.  For many of Andy's coworkers, it was probably the first time they had had one.

As I'm now in my last week here in Poland, I only will have a few more opportunities to post.  I've started getting a little sad, but I'm also excited about our upcoming trip to Zakopane and time with our friends from the UK.

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