Farewell, My Krakow, Farewell

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I hit a new low this week. I’ve been on four extended shopping trips within five days at Galeria Krakowska. I had lofty goals of procuring a work-appropriate watch, a purse that doesn’t look like a vat of acid was thrown on it, black work pants, and anything else with the potential to be worn in an embassy. American flag blouses, anyone?

Anyway, back to my new low (you didn’t think 4 shopping trips within 5 days was really my new low, did you?) This particular incident occurred on shopping trip #3. Because I tire easily on shopping trips, I frequently buy myself delectable edibles. After trying on 20 pairs of ill-fitting pants, I bought myself two scoops of mint chocolate chip and stracciatella ice cream at my go-to shop, 4D Lody. This chain serves the most perfectly fluffy ice cream in big scoops onto crispy waffle cones and it is simply magical.

I sat down on a bench and approximately 4 licks in, tragedy struck. My cone couldn’t take the pressure of the extra large scoops, so it cracked and both scoops fell to the floor. I let out a dramatic gasp and swung down to pick up the ice cream with my bare hand, which was now hosting this blob of melting, sticky cream with several little hairs and dust particles throughout.

As I neared the garbage, I started second-guessing every lesson I learned as a child: I just didn’t have the heart to throw it out. So what did I do? I plopped the visibly contaminated ice cream back into its cone and resumed eating. That’s right, I picked ice cream off the floor of Galeria Krakowska and ate it. And you know what else? I enjoyed it. Near the end I found a dead fruit fly in its icy grave, so I abstained from eating that part out of respect, but I devoured everything else despite judgmental looks from the little children passing by.

I realize now that I should probably not do this again. I am starting work as a public affairs intern with the U.S. government, and it is probably best if I am not seen eating ice cream off mall floors in public and so on and so forth.

On that topic, I’m finally approved to start work at the United States Embassy in Warsaw! After a long and drawn out security process, my clearance was granted on Tuesday night, so now I’m set to arrive in Warsaw tomorrow and begin work on Monday. Updates to come.

Even though I’m running around in a frenzied daze doing last-minute errands, I’m trying to take some time to process this major move. I’m sad, but ‘sad’ doesn’t quite fully explain how I feel about moving on. I’m ready to move on from Krakow. My friends are leaving, my purpose as a student here is finished, and I have a new life waiting for me in Warsaw. This past week has been a bit like being stuck in limbo; saying goodbye to all my friends that have gone home, all the while having no idea of where I’d be living in a week’s time. I’ve been anxious and worried for so long about sorting out the details to get to Warsaw, so now that it’s finally happened, I’m beyond relieved.

Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to leave. Krakow has become my home and there are so many people that have occupied such a huge part of my life here. (You know who you are!) The circumstances surrounding this year will never be recreated, so moving on is forcing me to close a chapter in my life that I can reread but never rewrite. But I’m okay with this because I think I wrote a pretty incredible year. So as a goodbye to Krakow, I would like to write a list of lessons learned accompanying things I have grown quite fond of this year:

1) Nawojka. You read me correctly. The one and only former Nazi youth girls center / Communist dorm that has caused so much strife to so many students will forever conjure feelings of nostalgia for my yesteryear in Krakow. For although I spent two full months tracking down the wifi guru during those unannounced office hours, I learned to live without checking Facebook and email every morning and night. Without the ruthless Nawojka pigeon-hawks stealing my wheels of cheese, I never would have understood that sometimes it’s necessary and justified to fight for your food. Cutting my foot open on the rusted metal bed frame reinforced my commitment to stay up-to-date on my tetanus shots and nearly passing out in my toxic shower taught me to always open windows during science experiments. I never thought I’d be hearing myself saying this, but thank you Nawojka.

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Nawojka as a Hitler Youth Center

2) Centre for European Studies. Good ‘ole CES. I remember walking into CES on my first day, alarmed by how small it was: the entire complex was a lounge, computer lab, one-room library, and a classroom. As you can imagine, I got to know the students and staff pretty well. CES taught me the importance of investing in a stapler. Despite the 5 staplers spread across the building, there is a 90% chance that there will never be a single staple in any of them. Also CES couches make great beds when you get locked out of your room at 4am. (And while no one cares to admit it, the real reason for the lost and found clothing box is to provide warmth for said nights.) A shout-out goes to Ola and the rest of the CES crew for their endless assistance!

3) Food. Hot donuts at Gorące Paczki, hot chocolate at Nowa Prowincja, breakfast at Pod Wawelem, potato and bacon pierogi at Pierożki u Vincenta, oscypek and cranberry zapiekanki in Kazimierz, corner kebab, and 20 zl lunch specials at Goscinna Chata. Can’t forget those many, many lonely lunches at my milk bar with familiar strangers either. These very lunches reassured me that it’s normal and strangely comforting to sit alone and eat your soup in silence. No phone, no book, just quality time spent sitting next to a stranger. Also, you should choose something off the menu that you don’t understand once in a while. Sure, sometimes you get a plate of liver and onions, but more often than not, you’ll end up with something that’s not half-bad.

4) Wawel Castle and the Wisła. I’ve walked by Wawel every week now for the past 10 months, and it never fails to amaze me. The towering brick spires seen from every corner of the city are straight out of a fairy tale (the fairy tale of Smaug of course). Lesson learned: stop gaping up at the towers climbing into the sky once in a while. Sometimes if you look down, you may just stumble upon Benedict Cumberbatch’s handprint plaque.

5) People. As I said before, you know who you are. Maybe I’ll see you again, and maybe I won’t. What I can say to all of you is thank you for gracing me with your presence. Of course the list is non-exhaustive, but I want to shout-out especially to Olivia, Michelle, Pierre, Mari, Dominik, and Kat. You guys are some pretty awesome characters and trustworthy companions – I’m lucky to have you!

So do widzenia my beautiful Krakow, perhaps we shall meet again someday!

Fine Dining Faux Pas

14350573217441Finals are officially over. About time – I can’t even remember the last time I was still in school past my birthday (June 15). Even in elementary school, I always assumed that the whole world stopped school to celebrate my birthday for two and half months. You can imagine the reality check I had when I was expected step foot in a scholarly institution on the most important day of the year. Nevertheless, I acted with striking maturity considering the circumstances so a “hoorah, you da boss” shout-out goes to this 22-year old.

As many of you might have deduced from the Facebook photos of me with someone who looks like a more angelic version of me, my sister Gigi visited a couple weeks ago. Gigi’s the whole package: quick-witted, talented, accomplished, well-informed, and lover of all the finer things in life (afternoon tea, musicals, fascinators, flowers, etc.) She’s the type who won’t shed a tear unless she’s eating a perfectly baked scone with clotted cream at the Dorchester. A right Renaissance Woman indeed.

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When Gigi arrived in Poland, I unapologetically elbowed my way through all the old ladies at the arrivals terminal so I could get to the front of the receiving line and give her a proper, obnoxiously-in-your-face-American welcome complete with pastries. I tackled her delirious, sleep-deprived self to the floor while swinging my breakfast basket into dodging passers-by.

The week we spent together was one big birthday bash. We gorged ourselves on the best pierogi, hiked mountains to pristine lakes nestled in the Tatras, cynically sneered out loud at the predictable Age of Adelaide, and geared up in our best clothes for Legalna Blondynka. That’s right: one of the worst Broadway shows ever was translated into Polish and put on stage as the first musical to ever grace Krakow. I must say, transcribing a song featuring lyrics like, “Omigod, omigod you guys!” into Polish must have been quite the linguistic endeavor.

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Hiking Time With Gigi!

After the show, we had reservations at one of the best restaurants in Krakow: Pod Baranem. It’s one of those restaurants where the waiters are smart and charming and they’re paid for their discretion. A place where the dinners should be framed and displayed on the wall and the drink of choice is not coca cola.

This was all fine and dandy, but I do not have much experience in the art of fine dining. My idea of a proper dinner is kebab. And despite the little plastic forks that Pyramid Kebab hands out, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that putting your face on kebab is much more effective than using utensils. Even so, I tried to be on my best behavior in the restaurant. I secured my knife in my right hand, my fork in my left, patted out all the wrinkles in my napkin, and started rattling off my most charming dinner conversation. Nevertheless, an ensuing slew of fine dining faux pas worked their way into my evening:

1) Dainty flowers. Gigi and I ordered a starter of spinach-filled pancakes. The waiter asked if we wanted two orders, but I told him one would suffice. I was so impressed with myself that I had actually chosen the smaller option. I exclaimed to Gigi a little too loudly and enthusiastically: “Our waiter thinks we’re dainty flowers because we’re splitting a spinach pancake!” Darn staff can sneak up so stealthily at times.

2) Spinach slingshot. The creamy spinach pancake arrived in front of us. Gigi expertly shoveled a little piece onto the back of her fork in the most correct way I’ve ever seen. I wanted to prove that I could eat spinach pancakes with class, but I got a little over-confident. I shoved too much spinach on the back of my fork and my shaky, unstable wrist gave out, flinging the spinach across the table to Timbuktu. It landed all over the starch-white tablecloth, the wine glasses, and the elegant candlestick. Tide-to-go pens do not always save the day.

3) Aggressive Meat Demand. After finishing half a pancake and hiding the massive green blotches with every available object in sight, I started to get hungry again. I broke character as a dainty flower on accident and jokingly pounded my fist on the table and shouted to Gigi, “Where’s my steak?!” Again, waiters can sneak up so stealthily at times. He timidly responded that my steak would be out in a few minutes.

4) Crawling under table. After my melt-in-your-mouth Barbican steak and raspberry cake, it was time to pay. Gigi paid the bill while I pretended to shuffle around my purse looking for my wallet. In the process I dropped 10 grosze on the floor (~$0.03). I started to search for that, and eventually crawled on all fours under the table to pick it up.

Case in point: no one should bring me to a fancy dinner. I’m a loose cannon that cannot be trusted. It’s not that I don’t try. I do try. In fact, I try really really hard, which is probably the saddest thing of all.

So with all this in mind, I do want to thank my lovely sister for putting up with all my shenanigans. She’s the most charming and unpretentious person I’ve ever met, and she still manages to find endless humor in my failed genuine attempts to act on my best behavior.

Lost Souls and a Dragon Named Smaug

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Greetings my fellow readers! I apologize for the lack of posts recently. The past two weeks have been filled with tales of bravery at haunted alleys, chasing dragons down the Wisła River, mountain expeditions, fine dining faux pas, and most excitingly, exams. Now that things are winding down, I’m finally ready to catch you up.

Lost Souls Alley

Ranked #5 of 236 things to do in Krakow on Trip Advisor, Lost Souls is a haunted house type situation that involves you wandering through a bunch of dark rooms with a flashlight while people chase you with chainsaws and axes for 20 minutes. And if that doesn’t scare you, the Alley is a series of about 5 rooms that you have to strategically escape from. That’s right, they padlock all the doors so you’re stuck until you find the combination or key to move from one horror to the next.

I really wanted to go considering I used to volunteer at a haunted house in high school. My job was to sit in the basement and rattle a bunch of chains while I screamed at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t very good at it. On my first day, I went to the basement and they closed me in there after explaining my duties. I subsequently started screaming and rattling chains for an exhausting 15 minutes before the manager came down and told me the first group wasn’t coming for another 20 minutes. Sigh.

None of my friends wanted to go with me, but I was able to trick one of them, Pierre, into coming. The first room wasn’t so bad. There was a guy in a wheel chair that started chasing us, but I could run faster than he could roll. I don’t want to give away too much, but the worst part was the last room. There was a series of shredded sheets hanging from the ceiling, and we knew someone was stalking us. We walked the perimeter of the room several times before we realized there was no exit. It was cruel. They kept us trapped for 10 minutes with this guy we couldn’t see breathing down our necks.

The whole time I was grasping onto Pierre (sorry for any fingerprint bruises), who was whispering French profanities while he tried to rationalize the people chasing us. We took turns kicking open the doors FBI style, and eventually made it out with our newly formed ulcers. I highly recommend Lost Souls. The best part is that there’s no constant action. Some rooms don’t have anything jumping out at you, which is great because you can’t predict what’s next.

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Dragon Parade

The Wawel Dragon is a particularly delightful Polish folk tale. It goes something like this:

There once was a dragon that terrorized the Kingdom of Krakow. His name was Smaug. (I was recently informed that Smaug is Benedict Cumberbatch and not the Wawel Dragon, but no one has offered a better name. Also, ‘dragon’ in Polish is ‘Smok,’ which is has the same etymology as ‘Smaug,’ so Smaug it is.) Anyway, Smaug was an evil dragon that terrorized Krakow, blew his fire on passerby’s, and ate all the maidens. The King was very distressed by Smaug, so he ordered a proclamation claiming that anyone who kills the dragon will receive his daughter’s dainty hand in a fairytale wedding. Knights from all over the kingdom came and fought with their brawn, but brawn < fire. One shoemaker decided to tackle the challenge instead with his intellect, and tackle the challenge he did. He filled a dead sheep with sulfur and left the sheep outside the dragon’s lair one morning as part of the dragon’s breakfast buffet. Smaug ate the sulfur sheep, which made him so thirsty that he drank the whole Visła River. And because the whole Visła River did not fit in the belly of Smaug, Smaug exploded. The shoemaker married the princess and they lived happily ever after in a kingdom that smelled of rotten eggs.

Krakow is still known as a City of the Dragon, and every year, there is a big dragon festival to commemorate Smaug. On Saturday evening, there was a dragon parade on the river, so my friends and I went, expecting boats to shimmy on by with big dragons all lit up. It was SO MUCH MORE than that. At 10pm, this epic music which reminded me of Mothra started playing and fireworks were sent off in all directions as this dragon boat started attacking other monsters on different boats. It was 40 minutes of non-stop dragon packed action.


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Let me also just say how different safety standards are here. Forty minutes of fireworks being set off right next to giant, inflatable balloons leads to precarious situations. We couldn’t even see some of the fireworks because we were literally sitting in a cloud of gunpowder. We had no idea how those boats fought each other without ending up with a Titanic-like fate.

Here’s a clip from last year’s river show (I couldn’t find a good one from 2015):

Ok, I think this is enough storytelling for one post. I’ll try to post again soon to fill you in on the rest!

The Necessity of Crampons

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Mountains are out to kill us. They are steep and jagged and icy, and I don’t know why we attempt to climb them. Nevertheless, I spent most of Friday falling up and sliding down a particularly nasty one in the Tatra Mountains, which is how I later found myself grasping onto my friend’s hoodie pocket for dear life with a hand wedged between a boulder and a mound of frozen mud to keep her from flying off a cliff a hundred meters high.

It had already been a long day leading up to that. Rewind 14 hours to 4:30am, and I was in an outright battle with my phone alarm. After punching all the buttons ten times over, accidentally increasing the volume, knocking over my metal Constantine bust, waking up my roommate, and lying on top of my phone to muffle the sound, I finally rose to the occasion and victoriously switched it off. Success #1.

I had been planning a mountain adventure to Morskie Oko with my friend, Kat, (the one with the Birkenstocks), and we agreed to catch the early morning bus to Zakopane. We were there by 8, so we dropped off some stuff at the hostel, split an assortment of pastries, and debated if we were ready or not gear-wise for the mountains (we weren’t).

In all honesty, I didn’t like the hike to Morskie Oko. It was two hours of crowds, paved roads, and porta-potties. Dissatisfied with the first leg of the trail, we decided that Morskie Oko wouldn’t be our final destination. We had done our research and knew that there was a lesser-known lake (Czarny Staw) behind Morskie Oko. We were determined to reach it, so we continued on our way.

In retrospect, this was a poor decision. You see, you have to climb a pretty steep ridge to get to Czarny Staw. In summer, I’m sure this would be no problem. It’s steep, but doable, and the view from the top is incredible. On the other hand, this is not a simple feat in early May. The 45+ degree angle climb with several drop-offs is completely iced over and unless you have crampons, you will most likely fall to your death.

*Side note* This is where I let you know that despite an extremely close call, neither Kat nor I fell to our deaths.

So what do we decide? Like most irrational, oxygen-depraved minds, we’re all for climbing it anyway despite our lack of crampons. We had seen a couple other idiots climbing up before us with sneakers, so we followed suit. Monkey see, monkey do. Going up wasn’t too bad, but coming down was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. We should have accepted our fate and set up camp at Czarny Staw until the ground thawed a bit, but we had already paid for our hostel.

After stalling as much as possible and brainstorming the best way to make it down in one piece, we figured we might survive if we slide down on our butts. We were in no position to attempt looking cool, and considering we were the only ones left, it didn’t matter anyway.

About halfway down, we faced the steepest and iciest part. There weren’t many trees or boulders to keep us from going off the edge, so unless we kept complete control, we would face major trouble. I elected to slide first and managed to aim myself straight at one of the boulders. Success #2.

Kat’s turn. I looked back at Kat, who was approximately two stories above me and wished her luck. She started sliding, but she lost control, rolled over and started flailing like a pill bug on its back, barreling towards me faster and faster. She was heading straight for the drop off and I saw some hikers from below look up at us in sheer horror. I went into full Mama Bear Mode. I dug my hand into this crevice, secured my footing, and took one swipe at her as she sped past me. I managed to grab her stomach hoodie pocket and felt my wingspan stretch painfully longer as she slowed to a stop.

We both lay there for a bit, equally astonished that I grabbed her. We started giggling profusely, which probably wasn’t the appropriate reaction, but I think we were both so panicked and happy to be alive that we didn’t know how else to react.

The rest was easier, but we were trembling like a Chihuahua’s legs on an early winter’s morn’. We finally finished the descent after an hour and once we were on level ground, we collapsed, hugged it out, and compared our battle scratches and bruises. It would be another 2.5 hours until we got back to the bus stop, but the worse was over.

We started the long journey back, and of course, we were among the last hikers left. The sun had gone down, and our clothes were completely soaked from an hour of sliding down ice and snow. When the bus station eventually appeared before us at 8pm, we had never seen a sight so beautiful. (Until we realized the last bus had departed an hour earlier, and now we were stranded in the forest, an hour by bus from our hostel. Amidst bears. And port-potties.)

Luckily, we randomly ran into another group of Polish students heading back to Zakopane, so we hitched a ride with them. As soon as we got back, we collapsed in the first restaurant that would take us and ordered the largest and cheapest meal we could find on the menu (the XL BBQ chicken special), delivered by two young, handsome suitors who hard-core judged the way we each inhaled an entire chicken without coming up for air once.

We had another mile-long walk back to the world’s sketchiest hostel. Besides the fact that it was an old, haunted mansion, Kat and I shared a bathroom and bedroom (no locks) with a bunch of older bald men in their underwear. In fact, there was no lock on the entrance and no person at reception either. I also found a half-eaten pretzel in my bed that definitely wasn’t there when I fell asleep the night before.

Waking up the next morning was the most surreal experience. We had survived 20 miles, and more importantly, we hadn’t fallen off a cliff, spent the night in our wet clothes in hypothermic conditions in the forest, or gotten murdered in the shower by a modern-day Norman Bates. Success #3.

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The 15 Levels of Serbian Nightlife

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I was unprepared for nightlife in Serbia. I’ve never felt more out of place than when I was waiting in line amidst a throng of real-life Bratz dolls in lingerie outside Gradska Kafana. I was preparing to accept the inevitable rejection by the bouncer who was turning down peeps left and right, but I was a girl on a mission to enter that club.

I think I need to rewind before continuing on about the evening’s events. The only reason I was nervously pacing back and forth in front of this kafana at 11pm on a Sunday night was because of an invitation I had received from the most fabulous person I’ve ever met: Elana. I’ve known Elana since forever, and since she’d been in Belgrade for three years, she was my in with the Serbian crowd. On my first day in Belgrade, she invited me out to a kafana (a bar-ish, clubby place unique to former Yugoslav countries) with her friends. Dress? Casual. Tag-along-friend? Of course! Revenge on exes? Obviously.

Part I: Birkenstocks

We agreed to meet up at the kafana around 10:30. I dragged along my friend, Kat, because every successful night out requires a good wing-woman. Plus I needed help navigating.

After being awkwardly confused with hookers several times while we were trying to hail a taxi, we finally flagged down the most beat-up looking car that seemed taxi-ish enough, and our driver sped us across the river to a land far, far away. We started to get worried, as Belgrade was getting smaller and smaller in the distance and we had no idea where or how far we were going. After a 20-minute drive, the taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of a field and sped away. Cue panic. The only building in sight was an old warehouse that had a circus tent roof, and other than that, nada.

To make matters worse, other cars started pulling up and dropping off the most incredible looking people on the planet. No girl had less than 6″ heels, everyone’s makeup and hair was impeccable, and lingerie was definitely happening. Just to give you an image of how we fit into this scenario, let me describe to you how Kat and I were dressed:

1) Kat – Black cotton dress with ratty Birkenstocks

2) Hayley – Cat stockings, jean shorts, a grandpa sweater, and sneakers

It was bad. We spent at least 15 minutes trying to make ourselves look more presentable, but we were past the point of being helped. Kat and I regrouped in a parking lot to resume panicking. Elana was nowhere in sight, and we were watching all these beautiful people being rejected from the club. To make it all worse, we got pity flowers from a guy because some model wouldn’t accept them. We were in no position to turn down pity flowers.

After an entire hour of cursing the poor decisions we’ve made in our lives, Kat and I finally gathered the courage to talk to the bouncer. We acknowledged that the worst was going to happen, but we also realized that we’d never see these people again, so we might as well make fools of ourselves and try anyway.

Part II: Flaming Champagne

Kat was practically pushing me into the bouncer because I was the elected spokesperson. He glanced at us from head to toe and back again with a disapproving look. With as much confidence as I could muster, I uttered, “Hi! Uhhhh I think we’re here to meet a friend??” (my voice trailing off in a high-pitched tone even I didn’t even know I could make)

And then came the miracle. Bouncer: “Elana?” Me (way too eagerly): YES!! Yes that’s her! She’s my friend!” His disapproving look changed into an approving nod, and he called someone to escort us to her table. My jaw was basically dragging on the floor while we walked past the lingerie models on our way to the very center of the room to meet Elana and her friends.

This place blew my mind. It was huge on the inside, and while there was no dance floor, the tables and chairs were a popular substitute. There were no windows, no lights, no oxygen, and the music was exclusively Serbian. The place was absolutely packed, and while literally everyone besides us was Serbian, they all knew that we were Americans (the Birkenstocks gave it away), so they all spoke to us in English. After a couple drinks, Elana gave us our formal introduction to Serbian nightlife. I introduce the 15 levels of Serbian nightlife as presented by Elana:

1-5) I don’t actually remember these ones because we arrived at level 5.

6) Music gets louder and louder. And I mean LOUD. Music is blasting at you from every direction. Good luck communicating. Don’t expect to rely on sign language either because the room is completely dark.

7) People are climbing on every available surface to dance. Tables, chairs, the wall ledge, each other… This becomes a blood sport as there are only so many elevated surfaces in the establishment. Be ready to fight for your territory.

8) Boys are starting to take their shirts off. Sweaty and dirty t-shirts are flung on you and you are being elbowed in your face because Serbian guys’ elbows are conveniently at eye-level.

9) Napkin throwing. I don’t understand why this is a thing, but people love throwing napkins at kafanas. This becomes quite the fire hazard because everyone around you is lighting up. Flammable objects are abundant, and since you are in a huge wooden warehouse with no exits, you start to become worried for the safety of the group.

10) Memory failing

11) Time to break out the flaming champagne, flares, and sparklers. Finally, some light! Careful though, the threat of an inferno becomes much more imminent.

12) Beer glasses are smashed on the floor. Good thing Kat and I had our Birkenstocks and sneakers; foot protection is imperative.

13 and 14) Furniture is being pushed and thrown and knocked over (so guys can show off their muscles). “Look at me pick up this chair and put it back down!” Conveniently their shirts are already off and the light from the flaming champagne casts shadows on their arms, creating the illusion of strong biceps.

15) People start getting hurt. Kat and I left before this level, so no need to worry! Elana showed us her battle scars from previous nights at level 15. As I said, Serbian nightlife is a blood sport.

There you have it: 15 levels of insanity that will have you dancing the night away on tables and nervously searching for the nearest fire extinguisher.

Before I sign off, I sincerely want to thank Elana, for without her presence and excellent connections with the bouncer, Kat and I would still be wandering through a field, trying to find our way back to Belgrade.

Cruisin’ in the Land of Corn Juice and Constantine

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I would like to start this post with a guarantee to my readers: Your knowledge of Serbia is going to increase 10-fold by the end of this post. How do I know this? Because the odds are in my favor – you don’t know much about Serbia. So 10-fold, 2-fold, red-fold, blue-fold, the number doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that you exponentially increase your knowledge of Serbia in the time it takes you to read this. I knew next to nothing about Serbia before traveling there a week ago, and now I know that Serbia is filled to the brim with popcorn, medieval fortresses, 6-inch heels, and munchmallows.

Lets start from the beginning. How did I end up in Serbia? CES organizes a weeklong study trip in Central or Eastern Europe for the study abroad students (gratuit!) every semester. This semester’s trip was to Serbia. So despite the fact that I accidentally told at least five people that I was heading to Syria (they really need to do more to diversify their names), a bunch of CES students and I were busy busing around SERBIA last week, making stops in Subotica, Belgrade, Niš, and Novi Sad. The trip was incredible. From swimming in the ice-cold, debatably cleanish water of Palic Lake to eating delicious lunches of unidentifiable meat in street food joints where beetles scamper across the counters, to raging the night away in the fire-hazardous kafanas of Belgrade, every experience was ridiculously cool.

Without further adieu, here’s what I have to share about Serbia:

Political Life

1) People LOVE Tito. On one of the days in Belgrade, we visited the museum of Yugoslav History, which was basically one big love letter to Tito. We visited his grave, walked through exhibits of ivory cigar holders and satin gloves, and watched a “documentary” (propaganda film) showing how the even trees greeted Tito warmly wherever he went (I swear I’m not making that part up). I never knew someone could be loved so much. I left the museum wishing he were my bffl.

Tito's grave, Belgrade

2) On one of the days in Niš, a couple of us witnessed a big political rally. Of course, no one knew what was happening, but I later asked a couple of Serbian students, who told me about it – the man speaking was Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party and tried war criminal who committed crimes against humanity (started a campaign of persecution of local ethnic Croats in 1992). He just returned to Serbia from jail because he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Heavy stuff.

Vojislav Šešelj - Leader of the Serbian Radical Party and tried war criminal. Recently returned to Serbia after spending 15 months in prison because of his failing health.

3) Don’t bring up certain topics. We were instructed to remain silent about Kosovo and the Bosnian Genocide even with the tour guides. Another sore topic is the NATO bombings of 1999. If you want to have a political conversation, just start talking about how much you love Tito and you’ll be in good company.

One of the buildings bombed by NATO in 1999

Food

1) Popcorn is life. I’ve never been in such a popcorn-centered society, and IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY. I don’t understand why more societies don’t feature popcorn as a main part of their culture. It’s simply the greatest food ever. Serbia gets me. On a side note, I did make a popcorn faux pas in Belgrade. All the popcorn kiosks have different spices outside so that you can season your popcorn as you wish. After being handed my popcorn, I picked up what looked like spray-on butter (What can I say? I love my carcinogenic chemical butter.) Turns out, chemical butter is Windex in Serbia.

2) Corn Juice. Not great. Tastes like sour yogurt and corn that has been brewing at room temperature for two weeks. Not for the faint of stomach.

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3) Munchmallows. The single greatest fluffy-pillow-of-air-confection to ever exist! It’s like an uncooked fun-sized s’more wrapped in love and bundled with a thin layer of milk chocolate.

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4) Unidentifiable meat. At breakfast, you get unidentifiable round meat product resembling baloney or spam. At lunch, you get some type of unidentifiable meat wrapped in bacon. For dinner, you get lamb.

Cultural/Historical Life

1) Constantine the Great, son of Flavius Valerius Constantius, was born in Niš. I now have a bust of Constantine sitting on my desk. Hooray for free souvenirs.

2) Waiters don’t write stuff down. Ever. Each time we went out for a group dinner, the waiters would memorize everyone’s order, but then they’d have to come back at least 3 times to verify what everyone had. Someone always ended up unhappy with the delivery.

3) Apparently, violin prodigies are rampant in Serbia. I went to a classical music concert at an art gallery in Novi Sad, which ended up being a blow-to-the-ego recital of adorable Serbian children playing like Paganini.

Nightlife

I’ll be in touch.

I think that’s enough for now. I will be hopefully write again soon about Serbian nightlife because it was phenomenal and I’m still recovering two weeks later. In the meantime, I highly encourage you all to go make a bowl of popcorn with all the fake butter your little heart desires!

What Would Oprah Do?

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“Kat, we should get grapes as a palate cleanser. We have three tangy cheeses and chocolate truffles which are all contrary and scrumptious, and grapes will break up the flavors nicely.”

These words actually came out of my mouth on Saturday. I’m not especially known for my presumptuous palate. In fact, most of my meals here involve some combination of greasy kebab, pierogies, processed chocolate, and over-sugared tea. So I suppose I surprised even myself after vocalizing my Oprahesque thoughts regarding palate cleansers. In fact, the whole weekend was oddly Oprahesque.

Spell check is informing me that Oprahesque is not a real word, so I am kindly inviting Oxford dictionary to incorporate this new adjective into their dictionary:

Oprahesque (oʊprɑː/esk/) – of or pertaining to Oprah Gail Winfrey, and the encompassing wholesomeness and fabulousness that is her life

A description of my weekend might help you understand the meaning behind this new word.

Saturday: Early morning wake-up call! No time to sleep in when you’re being Oprahesque. I convened with my friend Katherine (Kat) Marren, an exchange student from Rochester, and we walked to Pod Wawelem (a Polish restaurant straight out of Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel) for its breakfast buffet. The restaurant itself is located in Planty Park next to Wawel Castle. It is one of my favorite restaurants in Krakow, mainly for its impressive ability to create two contradictory atmospheres, both equally inviting:

1) Night – The multiple rooms are packed with boisterous, friendly bar-goers and families devouring enormous schnitzels, barbeque, and endless pints of beer. The waiters are running around with flaming steaks and refills, dodging the rogue arms swinging pints of beer in celebration. A violin, accordion, and bass are playing Eastern European folky jazz music and the bartender is looking sharp behind his white tiled counter in his crisp white shirt and bowtie. Multiple chefs are madly dashing around the kitchen, clothespinning orders to every available string and counter, shouting and hurriedly passing off dishes to the young waiters running in every which direction. Wawel Castle appears all lit up through the windows, providing a spectacular backdrop, but no one seems to notice.

2) Morning – The chaotic night has come to an end and now the sun shines through the large, open windows and Strauss waltzes play quietly on the record player. A table of cold cuts, cheeses, eggs, bacon, fried mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, cookies, pastries, and rolls line the far wall. Set in its own sunny corner is the smaller table of coffee, tea, and juices. Waiters from the previous night are still cleaning and clearing, sharing understanding looks with each other that subtly translate the long hours of familiar exhaustion. Parents are planning their day while their kids are munching on breakfast cookies, and businessmen are reading their newspapers over freshly brewed cups of coffee.

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Kat and I soaked up the morning atmosphere for a good, long while, discussing all sorts of issues – the death penalty, women’s health, education, working and living abroad, gun control laws, Hillary for president, microeconomic financial investments, you name it. We got so caught up in conversation that we both snapped back to reality as the staff politely hinted at us to hit the road by taking away our coffee and closing down the buffet spread before the lunch crowd’s arrival.

Proud of our intellectually productive morning complete with good food, we wandered to Jagiellonian’s botanical garden, where we spent the next leg of our Oprahesque weekend. It was chilly and overcast, and since most people were still asleep, we had the entire place to ourselves.

Springtime at Jagiellonian Botanical Gardens!Springtime at Jagiellonian Botanical Gardens! (2)

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At this point, we started to realize just how cultured and classy we’d become in the course of one morning. Ensuing conversation:

“Look at us being so classy! We just went to a breakfast buffet on Saturday and discussed politics, and now we’re exploring a botanical garden and it’s not even noon!”

Once we established how sophisticated we were being, I think we both felt some pressure to keep it up for at least a full 24 hours before we regressed. We agreed that attending a cheese festival would count towards our Oprahesque day. We purchased our three favorites cheeses, a bottle of white wine, and fancy truffles before heading back to the dorm to assemble our purchases. In retrospect, I think the classiness of it all went to my head, hence the palate cleanser comment.

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Starting to understand what I mean by Oprahesque? Yep. And if that wasn’t enough, we settled in to watch the Butler, starring Oprah. To top it all off, we got celery puree soup for dinner. I repeat, celery puree. I’ve never felt so wholesome in my life.

We decided that since we enjoyed being Oprah so much, we might as well continue our classy streak on Sunday. We woke up early again, and this time met with another friend. We all headed to the bus station for an impromptu trip to Cieszyn, a border town between Poland and the Czech Republic. We decided to cross the border by foot and have a lunch date in the Czech Republic.

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I feel like by now you’re all getting a feeling of what it means to be Oprahesque. Since this post turned into one, long proposal for adding a new word to the English language, I think I’ve done my part in thoroughly explaining its proper usage. Oxford, take note.

So all that being said, I encourage you all to go out and treat yourself to an Oprahesque weekend!

Scribbles of a Madman

14292676087151I survived my first trip to a Polish hospital! Results of the expedition: I have a bloody throat, but I shan’t die for the moment. I’m actually not too sure of what the results were since my doctor didn’t speak English and didn’t take any throat cultures, but 4 prescriptions have done me a world of wonders since two days ago when I couldn’t swallow my vegetable stock for dinner without cringing in pain.

I avoided going to the doctor’s for as long as possible. It’s always one of the most miserable things to do in a foreign country: you have to figure out if you have the right insurance, make sure you know how to express your lack of ability to swallow your vegetable stock in another language (or have a translator), and confront the tram system, which you have been avoiding all year since you were escorted off it last November. However, after two weeks of a horrible sore throat, prescribed meds outweighed my fear of confronting Polish healthcare.

Luckily, I had the fabulously wonderful, one and only Aleksandra Wiecha to accompany me on my trip to the hospital, and she honestly took care of everything. She made my appointment, translated all the paperwork, waited over an hour at reception with me, fetched us both lunch, described all my problems to the doctor in her flawless Polish, and came with me to pick up all my prescriptions at an apteka. Ola, if you’re reading this, you’re the bomb, and let me know if you need a BFF.

When we arrived at the hospital around 1pm, I had to fill out some paperwork, pay 90 zl ($24) and then wait. And wait some more. The line was unusually backed up outside Room 308 according to the peeps huffing and puffing all around me. Some older pani’s tried to get me to complain with them in solidarity while Ola was fetching our lunch, and I just gave them all understanding “I know, right” replies and eye rolls directed towards Rm 308. I tried to not get too involved in conversation because of my sore throat and sad excuse for Polish, so I doodled like a mad man in my notebook to ward off the others. It worked quite well. I think I even surprised myself with the results of my madman scribbling:

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When the doctor finally called me, I was caught so off-guard that I sent all my neatly arranged paperwork flying. I scrambled to pick up all my crazy scribbles and paperwork and shuffled into the room with Ola, who proceeded to tell me under her breath, “You look too happy, look sicker.” I quickly changed my smile into the most pitiful, sad frown I could muster and muttered a morose, “ow.” Of course this sent us both cackling. The doctor did not look amused.

Ola continued to translate all my ailments and the doctor, who stuck a wooden stick down my throat and said, “It doesn’t look too bad, just a bloody throat.” A bloody throat! I was also told the air pollution is probably making whatever I have worse and prolonged. Luckily, within two minutes, the doctor was writing down a list of medications, which she gave to Ola. While they were discussing whatever I needed to do, I glanced over at the decades old radiation detector sitting in the corner next to the vintage, rusted electric kettle.

After 15 minutes, we shuffled back out of the room and marched on over to the apteka, where I got all my prescriptions filled. I thanked Ola, hugged her in the very middle of the street (awkward timing, I know) and went back to the dorm to rip open my meds like a kid on Christmas.

Which leads me to today. I’m contentedly lounging in my bed half-asleep surrounded by a cornucopia of Polish meds and my biggest plan of the day is making applesauce in my pj’s. Hooray for Polish healthcare!

The Rude Awakening

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Dear Hayley,

Congratulations, you have been selected as one of our early registrants for Fall Semester registration! Please let us know if you want to take Senior Seminar in the Spring or Fall. Oh, and you have to decide when you’re taking Ethics, Religion, and International Politics. Can’t forget about that one! Also, it’s time to start thinking about a Fulbright. Here’s a list of 1,000+ program options. Unfortunately, Fulbright doesn’t offer English Teaching Assistant scholarships in Palau. Additionally, don’t forget to create your work schedule; we’ve been Eagle-eyeing your My Bill, and you might want to consider spending a few more hours squeegeeing the pool deck and picking up hairballs in the gutters next year. Hope you’re having fun in Poland!

xoxo, Boston College

Talk about a rude awakening. These past two weeks have been the needle to my balloon, the road grinder to my after-breakfast nap, and the absence of water to my Śmigus-Dyngus. So much for avoiding the stress of Boston College this year.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience in Poland has been far from stress-free, but the stress here usually comes from being escorted off the tram by impassioned Polish authorities, avoiding asphyxiation in Nawojka’s toxic showers, getting trampled by nuns on Independence Day, waiting in achingly long lines at Bank Zachodni, and avoiding confrontation with suspect machine-gun toters in abandoned quarries: all stressful enterprises that can easily be forgotten at the end of each day with the help of a Communist-era mattress and scratchy wool blanket.

The stress of Boston College falls under a different category: it is of the tortuous, no-end-in-sight genre. This type of stress doesn’t let you sleep at night because you have SO MUCH hanging over your head to the point where your poor lil’ noggin feels like antimatter waiting to explode.* It is stress that feeds off itself and becomes exponentially worse for you as you begin to question your mental sanity when hallucinations work their way into your daily routine after many consecutive nights of minimal sleep on your illegal foam mattress pad.

As much as I thought I could escape it, BC stress found me hiding, and now it is coercing me into making grownup decisions about my future. So here it goes, a list of my recent grownup decisions:

1) I will not do a Senior Year Thesis. For a long time, I wanted to do a political science international studies thesis, and I even had several well-developed proposals. However, I came to the conclusion that doing a thesis would severely limit a lot of other things I was hoping to do Senior Year. Since a thesis is optional for my major, I’m deciding to opt out of this one to leave room for work, a possible internship, and classes that won’t exactly be a walk in the park.

2) I am leaning towards applying for a Fulbright. I have to do a lot of research before I make my proposal, but this is one of the forefront stresses on my mind right now, which means I should probably do something about it. Applications are due in September. With no summer vacation to do this, I need to start making some difficult decisions pronto.

3) Classes are done and registered for! I’m actually quite excited about Fall’s lineup –

  1. Intelligence and International Security – Hooray, a Homeland class!
  2. Investigative Journalism
  3. Ethics, Religion, and International Politics
  4. The French and the Peoples of America – conducted in French
  5. Microeconomics – This class kills what would’ve been a great schedule. You know those classes that you avoid as long as possible? For me it’s econ. I took macro freshman year, and I swore never again. But now I have to take micro for my major, and this is comes to me as great sadness. It’ll be even worse now because I’m going to be with a bunch of eager beaver freshmen who will actually care about good impressions and doing the homework the day it’s assigned. Sigh.

So that’s been my week. I have a presentation tomorrow on Krzysztof Penderecki, a Polish composer who lives in Krakow, and the presentation’s in Polish, so that should be fun. I’ve actually been listening to his music for well over an hour now, and since I don’t want to leave you out of any cultural discoveries, I’m linking one of his pieces below. It gets really beautiful at 6:34. Music to my Ears!

*Blame any scientific inaccuracy on Dan Brown.

And a Merry Śmigus-Dyngus to You

Śmigus-Dyngus Day is a holiday celebrated all over Poland and other Slavic countries to celebrate the good ‘ole pagan traditions of boys throwing water on girls and smacking them with pussy willow branches. If you were soaked with water by any pesky schoolboys or gentlemen, congratulations! Your chances of being married someday have supposedly skyrocketed. This endearing tradition is still celebrated today (with less pussy willow beatings and more buckets of water).

My Śmigus-Dyngus was a far cry from the tall tales I had been fed regarding Wet Monday. I planned to stay in because I was cold and sick, but my domestic duties beckoned and I was forced to leave Nawojka after remembering I was out of laundry detergent. Since I’m so dedicated to my laundry (you are talking to the girl who used to walk +30min to Kazimierz to do her laundry for the first 4 months of living in Poland), I prepared to brave the water wars of Dyngus Day to hunt down my soap. With my phone in a plastic bag and my waterproof jacket in tow, I slipped out of the eerily quiet dorm. I was sure that once I entered Old Town, the deluge would break loose. This video sums up subsequent events.

So Śmigus-Dyngus was a failure and now I shall grow old with my cats. (Though, I didn’t really need Śmigus-Dyngus to tell me that one.) I really don’t know why no one wanted to throw water on me. How could anyone resist an awkwardly bizarre, yet fun animal-whisperer who is preparing for her premature and imminent future as a babushka?

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Despite the sad day that was Śmigus-Dyngus, I had an excellently epic week with the parentals who came all the way from our quaint country manor in Norwich, New York. For those of you who have recently checked my Facebook, it should come as no surprise that my parents came to visit me last week for some pre-Easter celebrations. After six long months apart, it was wonderful to see my family again.

In all honesty, I was quite nervous to greet them at the airport. I wanted to give them the impression that I was not only surviving, but thriving in my new abode. Ha. I hadn’t gone shopping for clothes all year, but the day before they came, I suddenly felt pressure to find myself a new outfit for the next day and make sure I looked decently presentable. I woke up way earlier than needed to fix my hair and makeup (good gracious I spent at least half an hour on my eyeliner), and even went to several different bakeries to buy them an arrival cake.

Maybe this is my real Śmigus-Dyngus problem. I spend 20 minutes getting ready to wear the same outfit every single day and then put in date-night effort whenever the parents come to town. I don’t want to even begin psychoanalyzing that one.

But besides the apocalyptic bipolar weather, all went smashingly well. I sneaked into the Sheraton for a week, benefitted from a real bathroom with real shower, and it was all so lovely. The only close call I had was almost burning down the sauna, which I was using under my Dad’s name so it all would’ve worked out for me fine in the end (sorry Dad).

After running back to the Sheraton during a particularly nasty downpour, my jeans were completely soaked. I had the genius idea of bringing my jeans into the sauna so they would dry pronto because I didn’t have any other pants. I lay my pants on the rocks, thinking they were only there for decoration and fell dead asleep on the bench. I woke up to bizarre smelling steamy smoke and saw that my jeans were burning in front of me. Panic. I was literally in the process of burning down a wooden oven with my pants. Whoops.

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I grabbed them and threw them out of the sauna before the situation deteriorated any further. Now I have burn holes in my favorite jeans, and they leave a horrible indigo stain on my skin every time I wear them. However, I have deemed them more or less wearable. They just have more character now.

Because the weather was so horrible, we pretty much just ate nonstop. I’m gonna have to write another food post soon about all my favorite Krakowian eateries; there’s so many! But, in the meantime, I will leave you with some pictures of the parents’ visit.

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The Parentals in Poland!

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Causing a Ruckus in the Schoolroom

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Enjoying an Overwhelming Large Dinner at Pod Wawelem

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I’m Gonna Miss These Folks!