Bigos, Pierogis and Jews, Oh My!

Oh hai humans!

Sorry for the delayed blog-making and posting. Things in Poland have been, well, busy and amazing, and life changing and incredibly wonderful and incredibly hard and I’m happy to say, I’m happy. Happier than I’ve been in a long, long while. Maybe it’s because I’m living abroad, or because in Poland you can walk and bus everywhere (and anyone who knows me knows how much I hate driving), maybe it’s because I’ve been eating well, or because I’ve been traveling to visit friends and family or maybe it’s just because I decided to be.

Although it’s nice for me that things have been jolly, it doesn’t make for the most interesting of blog posts, and I don’t want everyone out there to think I’m a total self-indulgent douche (although, I guess having a personal blog makes you one by default). But after a few calls from my mom (who I think may be the only person reading this thing anyway), I decided to try and post again.

Last night a professor in the English department had myself, Sterling (the other Fulbrighter in Olsztyn) and his girlfriend Erica over for dinner. It was an amazing Polish feast and five hours, seven courses and four drinks later, I didn’t know how I was going to get home, let alone stand up from the table. After countless years of vegetarianism I wasn’t sure I could manage to eat the seemingly never ending pile of meat on the table, but somehow I managed and my stomach hadn’t felt happier in months. We ate pierogis, borscht, bigos (a Polish meat and cabbage stew that takes 3-6 days to make), a roasted goose as our main dish, more cabbage, potatoes, carrots, a Polish yeast cake as our first dessert and ice cream as our second. We also managed to take a vodka shot as we sat down at the table for a “true” Polish experience. It was my first time in a Polish home and it was one of my favorite memories in Poland thus far.

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Earlier in the week I stumbled upon an outdoor pool party in the center of town in 10-degree weather. Apparently it was a national day of fundraising for the sick and elderly and our town hosted a full day of events including the aforementioned pool party, a wrestling tournament between the elderly men of Olsztyn and an outdoor concert featuring an amazing ska band called Enej. It felt so surreal dancing to the music, snow falling and just allowing myself to feel the joy of my new life here. Later that night, we went from pub to pub and my Polish friends laughed as they noticed how long it took me to finish a drink. Considering I’m the first American most of them have met, they always have interesting questions for me including “does it take every American three hours to drink a beer, or is that just you?” Apparently I’m giving us a bad name, sorry peeps!

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In other cross-cultural news, although I love being the first American my friends have met (I think I represent my country well), sometimes it’s hard being the first Jew. I love and adore the people I’ve met here and I know they love and adore me back, but navigating how and when to “come out of the Jewish closet” is a tricky situation. Of course all my best friends here know, but I never know how to approach the subject with more distant friends. Of course they could see from Facebook I spent the holidays in Israel, but I could tell that many of them still didn’t understand I was Jewish by the way they asked me how I celebrated Christmas. When I finally explained to them that I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m Jewish, the only way I can describe the look on their faces was complete and utter shock. The first sentence out of one friends mouth was “but you don’t have a big nose.” The second sentence “are you rich?” The third sentence “I like making Jewish jokes, so I’m glad you told me.” Although these sentences were harmless, I was having a particularly sensitive night and it was all I could do but cry. It wasn’t what they said that hurt me so much, but the pressure I felt in return. I didn’t realize how pervasive and widespread these negative stereotypes were and now I feel like as the “first Jew” it’s my entire responsibility to prove them wrong. I know I represent my people well, but sometimes it hurts to think about all the negative perceptions people have of us the world over.

I come from a world filled with Jews, a community accepting of my culture and my people, it’s easy to live in that bubble and forget that there are places in the world where it’s still not okay to be Jewish, a world where Jews don’t even exist. There is a Jewish saying that goes something like “if you save a life, it’s as if you saved the whole world.” Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit (if I sound like a jerk please let me know), but I truly believe that if I can change one friends’ mind about what it is to be Jewish, through their actions, they can change many minds as well. Maybe that’s the only way change ever comes.

Although it’s hard being the “lone” Jew sometimes, I feel proud of my culture and I can’t wait to host a Shabbat dinner for my friends here and show them what our religion is all about.

Sending so much love to all your corners of the world!

On Saying Yes.

When I first arrived in Poland I found myself counting a lot of things.

Counting my money spent, my hours working productively, my hours with friends. I counted how much I spent each week on groceries and I counted what was left over in my fridge at the end of the week so I wouldn’t make another useless purchase. I made spreadsheets of all my expenses, spreadsheets of the amount of time I spent exercising. I meticulously planned each day and counted the number of people I spoke with, counted the people I could call friends and counted my weight gained in pierogis. I actually got excited to do boring things like call AT&T, just so I would have the chance to speak to someone in English.

Most importantly and sadly, I counted the days I had left in Poland. I crossed off each one before falling asleep, comforted by the fact that I made it through another one unscathed. When I first arrived it was 275 and that number was daunting. 275 days in a country where I didn’t speak the language, in a country where I didn’t know anyone, in a country where I often felt lost, I didn’t think I could do it. The number kept getting lower, 270…265…258.

But this morning I woke up and realized that somewhere around 248 I stopped counting. I stopped counting entirely and it feels amazing.

Before I got here I told myself “Sydney, you’re going to be lonely. It’s going to be the hardest time of your life but you’re going to learn how to be a human. You’ll learn how to exercise, you’ll learn how to meditate and take care of your body, mind and soul. You’ll pick up a skill, like knitting or painting and you’ll get really good at it.” I told myself “Sydney, by the time you get home you’re going to be ready to take on the world.”

For the first few weeks I was totally taking care of myself. I was exercising, getting lots of sleep, cooking, reading a ton and being an all around healthy young adult. But somewhere between 248 and today (198), something changed, because when I think about how many days I have left I feel terrified, not because I don’t think I can handle another day here, but because I don’t know how I am ever going to leave.

All my effort of trying to make friends in the beginning paid off, and I now have a group of friends who I love and adore (who wear eye patches in solidarity because I have to wear one). They remind me to have fun, let loose, live a little and they ALWAYS encourage me to take seconds at dinner. They remind me that in all that time counting I wasn’t really living, I was existing for things that made me miserable, like calorie counting and expenses.

So yes, maybe I have gained ten pounds in pierogi and borscht weight because I stopped counting my food intake and stopped obsessing over my workout regimen. But you know what?  I couldn’t care less.

I’m happy trying all the new foods my friends from around the world cook for me: delicious Romanian soup, chicken stroganoff from Brazil and moussaka from Greece. I’m happy drinking vodka (even though it’s absolutely disgusting) because it makes my Polish friends happy to see me try.

I’m happy and I have no reason to count anymore. So I’m going to enjoy and drink apple flavored beer out of a straw (because that’s what people do here) and if someone here offers me a cake, or a donut or homemade bread I’m going to say yes, because that’s what life is about for me today. Saying yes.

Well, in other weird Polish news.

A few weeks ago I was approached by my boss here in Olsztyn that her friend was working on a photo exhibition and needed some “non-Polish” looking models for his shoot. Apparently my short, not-blonde hair qualified as different enough, and this past Friday I found myself amidst my weirdest experience since arriving in Poland.

I was a little hesitant at first (for any of you who have seen the movie Taken, you may understand my nervousness), but when I found out I’d get some free beauty products out of the gig I couldn’t say no. Early Friday morning I awkwardly showed up at the salon to get my hairs and face did and met an awesome hairstylist who today actually cut my hair into a mow-hawk (shockingly I think it looks kinda of awesome)! Anyway, I met the photographer and his crew at the salon only to discover that our shoot was taking place in a furniture store. At that point not only was I stressing about being photographed, but about the fact that innocent bystanders would have to witness the awkwardness that is my existence. On top of all that, it turned out there was a filmmaker making a short movie about the creation of this photo exhibition, so I had to contend with regular cameras, video cameras and awkward half-polish, half-english interview questions.

A surprise to myself, it actually ended up being sort of fun and tomorrow I’m headed to the second shoot, this time at a castle!

I don’t have any final photos yet, but I was sent a still from the awkward interview portion.

Feast your eyes on this weirdness.

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A Weekend in Wroclaw

Sometimes you just gotta go and this past week was one of those times. Getting a little stir crazy, myself and another Fulbrighter decided to meet in Wroclaw (pronounced vrot-swav) for the weekend.

On Thursday I made the 8-hour trek from Olsztyn to Wroclaw with little difficulty. Luckily, due to my neurotic tendencies, I left for the train station early which was a good thing, because apparently the 31st of October is one of the busiest travel days of the year in Poland, with everyone trying to get home in time for All Saints Day. Unlike the happy holiday Halloween, All Saints Day is a very important holiday for mourning the dead and most Poles spend the day at the cemetery with their loved ones, sharing memories about those who have passed.

After making it to the train station I took a cab to my first hostel, Hostel Mleczarnia, where I was greeted by a very stoic attendant. Luckily, the beautiful old-fashioned décor made up for her cranky personality and I happily settled into my bunk (where I secretly whimpered about the fact that I was spending the night alone in an 8 person dorm on Halloween).  Luckily for me, a very nice traveler from Tawain showed up a few minutes later and we chatted a bit before falling asleep.

The next day I wandered around the beautiful streets of the city waiting for my friend Jess to arrive. I was amazed by the incredible street art not only in the nooks and crannies of empty streets, but very visibly placed on prominent intersections with lots of foot traffic. I guess this love of and respect for street art comes naturally to Wroclaw, a town with a tradition of public art (Wroclaw is especially known for its installation of over 240 gnomes hidden throughout the city, look at the picture below if you don’t believe me).

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Once my friend arrived we treated ourselves to cake and tea (a common Polish afternoon tradition), before setting off for our new hostel. Having already dropped off my bags earlier in the day, I was a little concerned with the seemingly sketchy location and sour attitude of the woman at the desk, but once we got to meet the other travelers staying with us, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

We spent the rest of the weekend touring the city, visiting museums and of course, a hostel classic, attending a pub-crawl. This pub-crawl wasn’t so much a “crawl” as an excuse for our crawl leader to meet up with friends and hang out at her favorite bar. I was just along for the ride and was happy to spend the night dancing to 50s favorites and taking milk shots (shots of hazelnut flavored vodka mixed with milk – for those of you who haven’t tried it, it basically tastes like you’re drinking Nutella, yum!), so I wasn’t upset when I realized the pub crawl was an all night sort of thing and I wouldn’t be returning home until morning. That night we danced the night away with a group of rowdy German teenagers (clearly on their first trip away from home) and I couldn’t have had more fun if I tried.

On our walk home from the bar (at around 4:30 am) I was amazed by the sheer number of people in the streets. It was as if it was 4:30 in the afternoon and people were coming home from work, not like the desolate mornings I’m used to in the states. A student city, Wroclaw definitely caters to the younger generations and I was really impressed by its number of bars, cheap eateries and cultural events.

Damn Fulbright, why couldn’t you have placed me there?

My only qualm was the fact that the synagogue was closed for the weekend because of the Catholic holiday. What’s that about?! I guess I’ll just have a to wait a bit longer to explore my first Polish synagogue.

Gdansk, Pierogis and Linguistic Imperialism.

Hello Mom (and friends) –

I hope you are all doing well in your corners of the world! I can see from Facebook lurking that all of you are :)

Things in the land of pierogis and kielbasa and cabbage are going well.

I just ended a lovely week with Nick who came to visit right around the one-month mark of my being in Poland (a more in depth blog post of our trip to Gdansk will follow)! In so many ways it has felt like ages and ages since I’ve been in the U S of A, but in others it feels like it has gone by in the blink of an eye.

Things here are good, I’m happy. Still learning what it means to be an ethical and thoughtful ex-pat living abroad, but am loving every minute (even the difficult cringe worthy moments of miscommunication that I sometimes want to forget).

Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t really mentioned the actual work I’ve been doing as a Fulbright and to that I have to say, well, I haven’t totally started that aspect of my program yet. I applied to Poland to fulfill two roles: first, to work as an English teaching assistant at the university and second, to research Polish street art. Although things are moving along with the research aspect of my stay in Olsztyn, the teaching assistantship has yet to come to fruition.

My university wanted Sterling and myself to assist in subjects we were interested in, so instead of placing us in English courses like originally agreed, they placed us in Psychology and Political Science courses. This was a great idea until we showed up to class and the professors saw how young we were combined with our lack of PhD’s and decided that instead of assisting, we could take their courses. (Yes, for those you are thinking it, this means that for the past 4 weeks instead of “assisting” I’ve really been on a glorified study abroad program).

Each week I met with a different professor, hoping they’d want to take me on as their assistant. I had professors who didn’t understand what I was asking for and suggested I be their student, I had professors who told me I was completely unqualified to teach English and just because I was an American did not mean I had the right, or the qualifications to teach anything to anyone. And I have to say; this professor said what I had been thinking all along.

Before going on my Fulbright I was concerned by the ramifications of what it would mean to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. By teaching English was I encouraging linguistic imperialism, I wondered? With only my BA does the fact that I was being paid to teach English abroad signify an overly developed sense of self, characteristic of Americans? Was I feeding into a system I did not necessarily want to be apart of?

Although I haven’t come up entirely with answers to the aforementioned questions, I have thought more deeply about what Fulbright is at its core. Yes, as part of the Fulbright you do oftentimes teach English (which is definitely problematic, although, as Nick likes to remind me, English wasn’t always the language of the world and it’s important for the world to have a way of communicating), but more importantly, you serve as an Ambassador of the United States. As a Fulbright Scholar you (hopefully) facilitate and engage in meaningful conversations with people from other cultures as a means of developing mutual understanding and acceptance.

Students here have heard of the United States, of course, but for most, I am the first American they’ve met (and probably the first Jew, even though they don’t know it). This means that together, we can help put faces to countries we’ve only read about, put names to religions we may have previously been scared of. I believe that these connections between people from different backgrounds are the only things that will save the world from the tragic fate of destroying itself over war. This is why I believe my one-year stay in Poland is so crucial, even without the English assisting*.

Tonight Sterling and I are commencing an 8-week seminar on intercultural understanding. We decided to have our first lesson on stereotyping because as a black man and Jewish woman living in Olsztyn, we probably couldn’t be more different from the average Pole if we tried. Through this course, we hope to create a safe space for students to have necessary conversations that will hopefully lead to a greater mutual understanding for one another, our cultures and the nations we left at home.

*Don’t worry Fulbright, in case you are reading this, I’m staring my actual English teaching assistantship this Wednesday. I finally met with a professor yesterday who was so happy to have me here and could not wait for me to work with the students in the foreign language department by giving lectures, assisting in classes and throwing events for both students and faculty to learn about American culture.

PS: More fun posts to follow, I promise I won’t always be so depressing!

On Being Jewish in Post World War II Poland

— I’ve debated writing this for a few days now, but I’ve decided I want to speak my truth no matter how difficult. In this post I’m referring only to my personal experiences and do not intend to make assumptions about all Polish people or for all Jewish people living in Poland. —-

Before applying to Fulbright in Poland, I knew the reactions of my friends and family were going to vary. Ranging from complete excitement regarding wherever I chose to go, to disappointment and confusion over my decision, the responses to my choice in Poland ran the gamut and I can’t say I blame any of the naysayers.

Up until I left for Poland when people asked me why I chose to return to a country where my ancestors perished, I didn’t have a good answer (partially because I was still trying to convince myself of this decision). I would tell them how my coming back to Poland was an act of defiance, an act of saying “I’m here and you can’t get rid of me no matter how hard you try.” I told them how I wanted to get to know the country my family once called home, how I wanted to walk in the cobbled streets my great-grandfather once walked along and how I wanted to smell the peirogis and potatoes and cabbages I would be eating today had history been different. I told them about the street art here, and my fascination with post communist Poland, I gave them a list of reasons, but for some reason, I still felt like I was trying to convince myself. Today, although my answer may not be so different, I say it with confidence.

Religious, racial and ethnic dynamics here are both fascinating and disturbing. Before the war, Poland was one of the most accepting countries in all of the world, not only for Jews but for people of many cultures. It’s hard to believe that 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population was Jewish, when today, Jewish life is all but non-existent. In the six decades since the end of the war, Poland has become 95% homogenous, meaning that only 5% of the population comes from non-Polish backgrounds. This means that when you walk down the streets you see a lot of white skin and blonde hair and anything different sticks out. It also means you still run into a bit of ignorance, a bit of racism, and a bit of anti Semitism.

Now, according to Wikipedia, anti Semitism is prejudice or discrimination against Jews solely because of their Jewish heritage. I can’t say I’ve been discriminated against for my religious beliefs (I also haven’t told anyone here that I’m Jewish), but I’ve been confronted with a few too many swastikas to feel comfortable and a few Jewish “jokes” that have brought me on the verge of tears.

What’s more is, I don’t know what to say, or what I can say. I can’t come in with my American beliefs, guns a blazing and tell everyone what to do. But I also can’t listen and do nothing, say nothing. I have to remind myself that this is a different culture and Jewish “jokes” may mean something different here than they do in the US, that maybe they don’t carry the same weight. I can justify it anyway I want, but I also can’t condone hate speech of any kind, directed at Jews or otherwise, so I’m stuck. I don’t want to be an American d*bag, but I can’t just keep listening.

No, no, no, okay.

Well folks, I did it. I survived my first week in Olsztyn and I don’t think anyone is more surprised than me.

Although a lot of this week was filled with boring things like shopping for my flat and filling out paperwork, I also did some exciting things too, like go to the grocery store. Although in the states I find shopping to be the most tedious and boring thing on earth, here it’s actually one of my favorite activities. From duck blood soup, to jellied pigs feet, to alien looking vegetables, I never know what I’m going find and I’ve highly enjoyed sifting through vats of sauerkraut, pickles, potatoes and cabbages looking for that one perfect head of broccoli.

In between stops at the grocery store (yes, I go a lot because I can only bring home what I can carry and I’m trying to stock up because winter is coming), I’ve made like three friends, which is a HUGE feat. I’ve never tried so hard to meet people in my life and my g-d, being likeable is f*ing exhausting.

During my exceptionally busy days (I wish that were the case) I got the chance to attend my university’s official inauguration day celebration. It was basically three hours of the school’s administration sitting on a stage in fancy Harry Potter-esque robes talking about the state of the school, I think? And thanking all the fancy people in the audience, like the President of Olsztyn, some priests and the two German men seated next to me. Although the entire thing was in Polish, I was pretty excited by the exceptionally delicious meal I had afterwards and the intermittent singing by the choral ensemble throughout the day’s festivities.

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Last night I got invited to go on a trip to Pasym, a beautiful village on the water, with the international students studying in Olsztyn. There I met some incredibly friendly Polish students who were really excited to practice their English and of course, teach me how to drink. Although I was hesitant at first, not wanting to be rude, I finally said okay. They told me I was a true Pole because when offered a drink Polish people always say “no, no, no, okay”, just like I had (this statement was highly contested, with other students saying that Poles always say yes to a drink – I guess I’ll just have to wait and see). The drink I was offered was Krupnik and it was delicious – although my reason for taking the first drink was that it was freezing and I needed to get warm, my reason for taking the second one was because it was so good!

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You may be wondering how any of this relates to Fulbright, and your confusion would be understandable! I haven’t started teaching yet…but that part of this adventure should begin next week!

Ps: If you have any good recipes I would love it if you could send them to me! I have loads of free time, and I’m trying to add some more insulation before winter rolls around and I don’t know what to cook. So far I’ve been making lots of soups, but I’m happy to try anything, especially if I know it’s coming from someone I love back home! Maybe that will help curb the homesickness.