Tuesday, August 24, 2010

German Physics Class

(Notes from my journal)

Monday, November 23, 2009:

I sat in on a class at the University of Zurich today. It was one of those impulsive, not-so-well-thought-out decisions that ended in more than a little embarrassment and what I’m sure will be a few recurring nightmares. Not that I wouldn’t totally do it again if given the chance. I’m beginning to think that it’s just my nature to head straight into situations that are guaranteed to be uncomfortable. Maybe I should see a shrink about my destructive tendencies...

Anyway, when I passed by a sign proclaiming the stern grey building that I was about to pass to be the Universität Zürich, I couldn’t help myself: the Swiss happen to be my intellectual idols, so any chance to get behind the scenes is like dangling a cake in front of a fat kid. I remember thinking “So this is where all the Swiss learn their tricks, huh?” The next thing I knew I was inside, trying to look as academic and inconspicuous as possible. I casually asked a student where the largest classroom was. She looked a bit confused for a few seconds (she must have been a newbie), but she eventually pointed me towards a set of large, imposing wooden doors. Luckily it was just about 11 am, so people were starting to file in for the next class. I moseyed on in (casual and cool as always), and was relieved to see that there were a few hundred seats in the classroom. Perfect, I thought, this will be a piece of cake: I’ll blend in at the back of the class and watch my very first Swiss lesson. I instantly imagined myself as a cool, sophisticated EU representative, able to speak at least 10 languages and heading up the intercultural relations department. I could see myself looking back at this moment and laughing. “It all started with that random class at the University of Zurich” I would say with an ironic smile when the press asked how I’d come so far.

Then I snapped back to reality when it dawned on me that they would probably be conducting the lesson in German, of which I only know three words total: “Guten tag” and “Bier.” These are the minor details that usually get me into trouble. It’s ok, I told myself, I’ll just pretend to understand and try to make it through one hour. No one would be the wiser, since it was such a large class anyway. Right? Right? Wrong again, Captain Nincompoop.

With a few misgivings, I settled down in my usual spot: back row, closest seat to the door. Ah, it brought me back to the old UW for a few seconds. I waited for the room to fill up, but to my increasing dismay, after the first twenty people filed in the doors were shut. I gulped so loud that someone in the front row turned around to give me a curious look. This was not good: I’d assumed it would be safe to crash the party since it was a 200 person classroom, but 20 people does not a party make. Before I could pull a runner, the professor looked right at me, spouted off an impressive spiel in what could only be German (the spit was flying- I’m sure the front row caught the brunt of it), then motioned for me to join the rest of the students. Great, I thought, I’ve gone and done it now. At least I have protective eye gear, to shield me from the worst of the spray.

As I slowly made my way to the front of the class, debating the likelihood of making it to the door without falling back down the stairs and making a donkey out of myself, the professor turned and wrote a series of what looked a lot like physics calculations up on the board. Oh, goody; physics, my favorite. Could I have possibly chosen a worse class to sit in on? Try as I did, I couldn’t think of anything more agonizing. But I sat down closer to the front, calling myself all different kinds of idiot.

The clock struck 11, and class began (right on time, of course. This was Switzerland, after all). Luckily the professor launched into a lengthy explanation of the alien drawings that he’d written on the board. I felt like a cave man trying to grasp the concept of the internet. It just wasn’t going to work. I really wish I spoke at least a little German, so I’d have a fighting chance at comprehension. But hell, even an English Physics class would be well beyond my intellectual capacity, so I really had no chance at all here. I made it 35 blessed minutes before getting called on. The kind-looking professor spit a series of what I can only assume were questions at me, and I panicked. All I could think to say was “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand” in Italian. There was a split second of complete silence after I spoke. The professor looked at me quizzically, then burst out laughing as understanding dawned. Of course, everyone in the room understood what I had said, even though I was in the dark the whole time. The professor said something that sounded suspiciously like a sarcastic pun at my expense, and then the rest of the class was torn up laughing all over again. Thanks, guys, I’ll be here all week.

I took that as my cue to leave, so I quickly gathered my things and left with my usual grace and poise (and by that I mean that I tripped my way up the stairs, just managing to avoid the classic book-dropping move). I heard the professor shout a parting comment as I left, but I was too mortified to turn and address it. When I reached the door five years later, I tried in vain to pull it open before belatedly realizing that you had to push it. Thank God- for one horrifying second I thought that I was locked in. Free at last, I made it out of the building in under five seconds.

Well, that was joyful and all, but I think I’ll stick to teaching English from now on. It turns out that German physics is not my cup of tea. Who knew? So much for my daydreams of ruling Europe. That’s ok: I’d settle for being a chocolate taste-tester.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Misguided Queuing

It occurred to me today that if the frequency of an action is any indication of preference, then one could assume that I really LOVE standing in the wrong lines for everything. I have adopted a policy of just heading towards the longest row of people and hoping that it's the one that I need to be in, when more often than not it’s the worst possible choice that I could have made.

Example #1: I waited in line for at least 30 minutes at the Carrefour in Orleans just to get some cheese (it’s an addiction, ok?) only to find when I tried to pay that they only accept a special Carrefour card. Not only was my credit card no bueno, but they wouldn’t accept cash either! The ruthless employee pointed me to another mile-long line one cashier to the left, at which point I dropped the cheese and walked out. Even the toughest fromage addict has her limits.

Train stations are also guaranteed to raise the blood pressure. When trying to catch a train from Paris I spied a line of only 3 or 4 people waiting at an automatic ticket machine, so I gamely joined in the fun. Since I have danced this dance before, I made sure to check the list of cards accepted by the machine, and Mastercard was definitely on there. I had enough cash on hand as well, in case that failed. I got to the train station with a full hour to spare before my train left, so I anticipated having the time to leisurely get my ticket, then maybe get a little shopping in before my train. Oh Cassie, you silly, silly girl. You see, I am learning how to play the game, but I’ve definitely got some more studying to do.

I was getting a bit nervous, as even though the line was only 4 people long, each person took (no joke) 10 minutes to finish their transaction. Even after I stepped up to the machine I couldn’t tell you why they were so slow. And they had an advantage over me: they were locals! Anyway, by the time I got to the machine I only had 20 minutes until the train left, but I wasn’t worried yet (only disappointed at the loss of shop-time). I went through the screens and shortly came to the payment screen. Here’s where the problems always crop up, this being no exception. Apparently even though the machine said it accepted Mastercard, they really meant Euro-Mastercard. I could do nothing but shake my fist at this blatant show of favoritism. Of course the machine didn’t take cash either, which eliminated my backup plan. So I sighed and resigned myself to performing yet another episode of the chicken with its head cut off.

In the end I managed to get my ticket from the cashier just in time to run and jump onto the train, narrowly avoiding my second favorite pastime (if judging by rate of recurrence): Missing my plane, train, or automobile by seconds and watching it slowly pull away without me. Yep, that one is right up there with misguided queuing, but for some reason it is exponentially more frustrating. Just one more side effect of blonde traveling, which I have yet to discover a way to avoid. That’s right: if you expected to learn anything from this tale, think again. Well, I guess you could conclude that the moral of my story is to never travel with a blonde (unless you’re looking for an adventure, of course ;).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A New Form of Public Humiliation

I often pass by one of the multitudes of scales on the streets of Torino and wonder why they are there. I mean, why would anyone possibly want to pay one euro to endure the painful process of weighing themselves in the middle of the sidewalk for all to see?? Maybe it’s just me, but even in my skinnier days I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. I’ve never seen anyone actually using the scales, but I know they must be used, because they are everywhere. I’ve seen them in other parts of Italy as well, so it’s not just a local phenomenon. If you have any insights to this puzzle, feel free to let me in on the secret.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Challenge of Porta Susa

I find it highly amusing that every time I try to get out of Torino’s Porta Susa (the train station closest to my apartment) I get lost. No exaggeration: I have literally never made it out without wandering around for at least fifteen minutes to an hour. The ironic part is that the Porta Susa is the smaller train station in Torino. Porta Nuova is the main station, but it is much easier to navigate. You can just walk up from the metro and enter in the front doors of the station, and there are all of the tracks. If there was a god, this is how all train stations would be.

Not so with Porta Susa: it is a verifiable labyrinth of long hallways and stairs, complete with signs that no matter how carefully one follows, inevitably lead to further disorientation and confusion. Well, this time I decided to put my faith in the crowd that got off of my train and follow them to the exit. “When in doubt, follow the crowd” is my recently adopted credo, and it usually steers me in the right direction. However, this time even the crowd got lost! I laughed out loud when I reached the top of one set of stairs to see the leading group of Italians paused there, looking at the signs with bewildered expressions. They recovered relatively quickly, heading down another flight of stairs, then up the correct ones and out into the long walkway that eventually leads to the street. This time there was only that one minor detour, and I still made it out in under 10 minutes (a record-breaker for me). It was good to discover that I’m not the only directionally-challenged one out there, though.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Parliamo Italiano? Espanol? Deutsch?

Question: if you were fluent in 5 different languages (and we’re talkin' totally fluent), what would determine which language you would speak in at a given time? With the Swiss, they are all proficient in a number of languages, so I am wondering which ones they choose to speak in, and why? I overheard a couple of different conversations when I was there, and it seemed like they switched through languages at random. As I really have no idea what it would be like to be so amazingly multi-lingual, I’m curious as a kitten about how it works. What language do they think in, dream in? How are they taught so many languages as babies? Jeez, how do their parents do it? Hmm, tricky business, these childhood geniuses.

Italian trucks

Every time I pass an Italian truck I can’t help but giggle. Anyone who has seen one knows what I’m talking about: they are so tiny that they don’t even need 4 wheels. So I feel justified in saying that they should not be referred to as trucks so much as covered tricycles. Seriously, my 10 speed mountain bike is bigger than one of them. And taller, too. I don't think that I could fit into one to save my life, but it must be possible. Maybe I could special order one with a sun roof that I could stick my head out of. It's something to ponder, in any case...

Thursday, April 15, 2010


At first, my spur-of-the-moment trip to Parma was a bit of a disappointment: I was hoping to catch a Parma Panthers game, tour a Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese factory, or watch an Italian 'football' game at the very least. But when I showed up at the tourist information booth I was doomed to failure: apparently it was the off season for football Americano, there were no football Italiano games scheduled that weekend, and you needed to schedule a cheese tour 4-8 weeks in advance. 4-8 weeks! That one caught me off-guard: isn't Italy famous for last-minute adventuring, I wondered?

It turns out that there's more planning involved in Italian touristing than I'd anticipated. However, being the resourceful young sprite that I am, I decided to make my own tour. I started by gorging myself on Parmesian cheese straight from a street market that I discovered, to be quickly followed by handmade ravioli in a cute little riverside ristaurante. After that lovely heart-attack inducing morning, I happened to pass by a sign pointing me towards a theater (the Theatre Farnese, which the tourist guide had suggested in an attempt to ward off my crushed expression). I changed course and headed towards it, taking the sign for what it was: a sign.

And oh, what fun times were had! There is one inarguable perk to traveling in the off-season: I was the one and only tourist inside the theater that day. Little did the smarmy receptionist know that it was a huge mistake to give me free reign over the place. Did they really think that a little portable fence would keep me out? OH no, that only made me more determined to go into the rafters and check the view from there. Of course, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that I’m a complete thieving troublemaker: my heart was pounding from the moment that I decided to jump the fence to the moment I returned to the right side of it. Sure, it wasn’t enough to stop me, but it’s got to count for something, right?

Slowly I realized that although this was an originally an ancient theater (as I'd assumed it would still be), it was rebuilt in the 1950s. Which is of course a detail that the receptionist neglected to tell me before I paid my five euros to see it. In fact, I didn’t get around to reading the little informational plaques until well after I’d decided to break all the rules. I spent the first 20 minutes wondering at how new everything looked, and suspiciously eyeing the wooden rafters.

At first I assumed that they still held events in the theater, but after hopping the fence and treading along through an inch of accumulated dust I realized that I was the first to walk down those aisles in a long time. At some point I decided, "screw it, I’m already breaking the rules: I might as well go all the way up!" So I jumped up the curiously steep stairs, finally reaching the first tier of balconies. I spied a rickety wooden staircase along the back wall, so I headed up it quickly, before I lost my nerve. It was not at all the kind of staircase that I would expect to see in a famous theater; it looked like it would be more at home leading up to a hayloft in an old barn in the Midwest. The stairs were again very steep (a fact which I failed to fully appreciate until I came back down them), and were made of plain unfinished wooden planks. I reached the top, glanced around the dusty floor, then walked up the very last set of narrow wooden steps to the top balcony of the theater.

There was absolutely no furnishings on this floor, further solidifying my impression of an empty hay loft. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but this was not it. I almost just turned and walked back down, but then impulsively walked to the edge and looked down. It was amazing. The rebuilt wooden areas gave the room a warm feel, and the original stone walls and floor added that mysterious aura that seems to pervade Europe like a fog. I could almost see the ghosts of figures dancing and singing up on the stage...at which point I realized it was time to get out of there before I rounded the last bend into insanity.

The return trip to ground level was no easy feat: there were no hand rails on the wooden staircases, and what had seemed “a bit steep” on the way up now looked like a suicidal descent for an established klutz such as I. My mind briefly revisited my trip down from the highest temple in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the last time that my legs actually refused to follow the instructions from my head. Somehow I made it down without acquiring too many more bruises, and I was back on the main floor innocently reading an informational plaque when the receptionist popped his head around the corner to check up on me.

The moral of my story? There's nothing like a rich, dairy gut-bomb and a little rule-breaking to spice up a mini-adventure.


Don’t you hate it when you've just sat down and gotten nice and comfortable, and then you realize that you need something that happens to be on the other side of the room? Then there's the eye-twitchingly irritating outcome when you finally muster the energy to drag your ass over to get it, only to find that what you needed was actually right next to you the whole time. Yeah, that’s my life. In my humble opinion, lazyasses just aren't shown enough sympathy these days.

An Interesting Night at the Opera

During my last week in Torino I decided to hit up the opera. I'd wanted to go at some point during my trip, but that point kept getting pushed further and further off, until my last week came around and I had yet to go. Unfortunately I couldn't convince any of my friends to join in the fun, but I wasn't too worried. Even with my dubious Italian skills I figured I could muddle my way though the plot of a slow-moving play. It's all in the visuals anyway, right?

Well, it was not exactly what I pictured it to be to say the least. The name of the play was Idomeneo, and all I knew of it going in was that it was going to be performed with Mozart. I figured, you can’t go wrong with a Greek play and classic music, right? Well, the old Teatro Regio got very creative with the plot of the original story. The opening scene was of an older man leaning over a fairly large fish tank, then throwing several objects into it. In the next scene I assume we were now looking at the perspective from inside the tank (judging by the air bubbles on the walls and enlarged objects). The objects thrown in were a car, a TV, a bed, and a Greek column. Lying on the floor were about 20 people wearing togas. Then in walked the main characters; a woman wearing a rhinestone-studded dress and a man with a plastic-covered suit. That’s right: the suit was covered in a giant, thick, plastic-bag-like layer. Why? Even long after the opera has ended I still have no clue. All I know is that they sure didn’t break the bank with the clothing budget in this one: everyone was either wearing bedsheets or plastic bags.

The first 30 minutes or so looked more or less like your average Greek tragedy: two people fall in love, but can’t be together for some Italian reason unknown to me, so they each threaten to kill themselves. The bubbles certainly mixed it up a bit, I have to say. The crowning glory was when what looked suspiciously like a 1970s Chevy was lowered onto the stage full of togas. I've always said that the opera could use a little horsepower to spice things up. (And who says the world doesn't value American-made cars?) After that a TV was added to the fray, complete with bunny ears. What these two things had to do with a Greek story evolving in a fish tank I cannot even begin to fathom. It was quite entertaining to speculate, though. My final analysis is that the director of the Teatro Regio was on mushrooms when he interpreted this play.

Of course, I had about a snowball's chance in hell at figuring out what was going on, but at least I wasn’t alone. One of the little old ladies sitting next to me (the place was chocked full of them) said more than once that it was “Impossibile! Troppo strano!” Whew- it's always good to know that I’m not insane, or have been slipped some kind of psychedelic drug.

At the end of the opera I still had no idea what I had just watched for 3 hours. So naturally I was a bit curious. As soon as I got home I looked up a synopsis of Idomeneo online, and what do you know? It actually was a greek tragedy. There was no mention of fish tanks, chevies, or TVs at all, which only goes to show that one should never indulge in illegal substances on the job. Che strano!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Winter Driving

December 17th, 2009:

Dear sweet lord, why did I leave the apartment when there is snow on the ground? The answer: I wanted to make pumpkin pie, and as you may know I will brave just about anything for baked goods. I was also curious as to the effect that snow would have on Italian driving skills, and now I know. Ask and you shall receive. They are bad enough on solid ground, but when you add ice to the mix, the effect is truly terrifying. Walking down my little street I heard nothing but the sounds of cars intimately getting to know each other as drivers pushed, shoved, and coerced their little vehicles out of buried parking spots. There wasn’t even the superficial façade of trying to avoid the other cars. It’s every man for himself here, take no mercy.

When I made it to the main intersection I paused to consider my options. Normally my policy is to just dart out in front of traffic and to hope that they stop, but I thought it better to abandon that today, as they probably wouldn’t stop for an armored tank, let alone me. So I decided to take the bus to the market, for some reason thinking that that would be safer than walking. I have such a propensity for bad calls in Italy. After four months here you would think that I would learn...

The bus driver was having a grand old time navigating the icy roads, careening back and forth over the train tracks. I think his official intention was to stay on the tracks, but in reality he was having a blast thoroughly rattling all of the passengers. Have you ever tried to drive a car on train tracks? If so then you know that it’s no picnic, even in the best of circumstances. Standing up while the bus is swerving left and right over them the whole time, with the tracks coated with two inches of ice; the overall effect was bone rattling. For a second I flashed back to a mosh pit scene from when I was a teenager: there were people falling into each other everywhere I turned, spreading out their arms in an attempt to regain balance that was hopelessly lost, pending our release from this death trap.

No one will believe me, but I swear that when I chanced to look towards the front of the bus I saw the busdriver grinning gleefully as he wildly turned the wheel. He saw me looking at him and quickly hid his maniacal smile, but his secret was out. I feared the worst: they have let the mentally infirm out of their straightjackets and onto the roads of Torino.

Finally the bus screamed to a halt in front of the grocery store. After getting out and kissing the ground, I decided to walk back after all. If given the choice between being buried alive under a human dogpile or flattened by a Fiat, I choose the Fiat. They are so small that there’s a chance I might live to tell the tale. I scurried into my safe, warm apartment, vowing not to emerge until springtime.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Musee d'Orsay vs The Louvre

During my week-long sojourn in France I was able to visit both the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay. Of course I have heard all about the Louvre, so I considered it a definite must-see while in Paris. It was my roommate, Olga, who insisted on seeing the Musee d'Orsay. I hadn't heard much about it, but was willing to go along anyway.

So on our first morning in Paris I dragged Olga out of bed bright and early (7am), in order to make it to the Louvre before the hordes of other tourists got there. I had heard that it was only open for a few hours every day and that the lines could be daunting, so it was best to make it out early. In the end it didn't really matter: it turns out that there aren't that many people there on a snowy Thursday in January. Who knew? But I was glad that we got their early anyway, as there was so much to see. I hadn't realized that the Louvre was more than just "art" as I define it. I was imagining hall after hall of famous paintings, and not much else. In fact the paintings were just a small part of the art on display. The Louvre had an entire wing devoted to Greek and Roman sculptures, another one for Egyptian art and artifacts, rooms and rooms full of Iranian and Middle Eastern antiquities, and countless other priceless pieces. It had a sample of artwork from every major era and area around the globe, basically. The overall effect was stunning, and a bit intimidating. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it was mostly the Italian and French paintings that held my attention. Sculptures are all well and good, but after a few minutes my mind started wandering.

Olga and I spent all day exploring and getting thoroughly lost inside the halls of the Louvre. In fact, even when we wanted to leave to get some lunch, we couldn't manage to find our way out for at least a half an hour. It seemed like the "Sortie" (exit) signs were everywhere, completely contradicting each other. The worst part was that we could see the outside, but there were no unlocked doors to let us out. I started pounding on the windows in frustration, which effectively grabbed the attention of one of the guards and earned us a guided escort from the building. Free at last! I should probably avoid the Louvre for a while until they forget about that incident...

Anyway, the next day we hit up the Musee D'Orsay. I wasn't expecting much after seeing the Complete History of the World the day before, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing an entire room full of my fave artist of all time, Claude Monet. I felt like a kid granted an unexpected pass to the candy store with $20; it even felt like candy for the eyes as I looked around the room. But that wasn't all: Monet was followed by Van Gogh, Manet, Pissarro, and thousands of other classic artists.

The most shocking exhibit was without a doubt Gustave Corbet's "The Origin of the World" which depicts a detailed image of a woman's vagina. Despite being a woman myself, I have to say that I found it a bit egocentric to insinuate that the world came from female genitalia, but that's art for you. To each his own, I say.

All in all, while I was far more impressed with the Louvre, I thought that the Musee D'Orsay was much more to my taste. It was smaller and thus more personal, and for me it doesn't get any better than a room full of Monet's. Seeing both museums was an experience I'll never forget, though. It made me realize that art is like a gift. It gives you images of different situations and time periods that you could never otherwise see or really imagine. Then, rather than limiting the imagination, art inspires it to go to new heights by providing a springboard to start from. Yes, I definitely think that art has grown on me, despite the fact that I'll never be able to truly appreciate the type of art that Corbet produced.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Polania

Christmas Eve 2009, 9:35 pm:

Good golden panty hose, I LOVE Christmas in Poland! Olga’s family is so amazing, I almost never want to leave. If it wasn't ten degrees below zero ouside there would be no contest. Of course, if they keep feeding me like they did tonight, they are going to have to roll me out of here using heavy machinery after only a week.

When I finally arrived at the nearest train station to Lodz, Poland (Olga's hometown), Olga and her father were waiting for me. After fifteen minutes of driving, we pulled up into the driveway of her family home. It was quite a plain, square building without much to recommend it from the outside, but on the inside it was nothing but warm coziness. It reminded me of visiting my grandma's house as a kid. Her parents welcomed me with open arms, as if they had known me for years. In fact, I felt like I already knew them as I have talked to them on Skype a few times, using my few phrases of badly accented Polish to entertain and amuse.

By the time we got there I was all in a tizzy in anticipation for Christmas dinner. Olga told me that her mom had been cooking for days for tonight’s grand event, and I’ve got to say that it lived up to my wildest expectations and then some. At first I was a bit nervous when Olga told me that they don’t eat meat on Christmas. Ever the carnivore, I joked “Jeez, I sure wish you would have told me that before I came all the way out here!” But then I was relieved to discover that the Polish don’t include fish in their definition of “meat” so we had a few varieties of salted and fried fish for one of the main courses. I say “one” of the main courses because there were seven courses in this dinner. That’s right: seven. For a girl who’s used to having all of the food put in the center of the table and everyone just going in for the kill, this was a definite change.

Before we started the meal Olga’s mother handed everyone a large wafer. Olga explained that it was tradition to go around to everyone and exchange good wishes for the coming year. These mostly related to health and wealth, but I thought it was a sweet way to begin Christmas dinner. So I went around exchanging pieces of wafer with Olga’s family and wishing them all well. It didn’t seem to matter that most of them didn’t speak a lick of English; somehow we managed to get the main points across. Her present family included her grandparents, her aunt, parents and her sister.

Post-wafer sharing we all sat down and Olga’s father served everyone little pieces of fish along with some hardy bread (which I’ve been sorely missing since living in Italy; the only pane that they have seems to be the fluffy white bread that goes stale in a day. Not that I’m complaining-there’s a time and a place for all types of carbs in my book). After that followed some mushroom noodle soup, which was amazing in and of itself. I had to hold myself back from taking more of everything, as I had been warned that there was a lot more coming.

I think my favorite part of the meal was in the next course: it had all of the ingredients of a fish stew, except everything was captured in a clear gelatinous substance. Carrots, peas, some other types of nuts, and fish were all floating around inside a rounded blob of jello. Have no fear: I promptly shook my piece as soon as it was given to me, and it definitely jiggled just like jello. I was intrigued. They then dipped this into a sauce made with horseradish, which I used very sparingly as I am not the hugest fan of all things spicy. To my surprise, the mixture of all of these flavors was amazing. I love discovering new combinations and methods of eating food. It’s truly mind-blowing how many different flavors go together that you never would think to try. In fact, I think I invented a few new combinations in my naiveté that Olga’s family had never tried.

Along with copious amounts of wine there was a jug of dark brown liquid put on the table. When I asked what it was Olga’s father happily poured me a glass while Olga frantically shook her head at me and whispered “It’s awful. Don’t drink it if you don’t like it.” Well, now I had to try it. I could never resist a good challenge. Everyone was watching as I took the first sip, so I carefully controlled my expression to conceal the automatic grimace that wanted to form. It tasted like pure smoke with a mild fruit aftertaste. I couldn’t figure out how they were able to capture smoke inside a drink…actually, now that I think about it, bong water probably tastes quite similar to this traditional Polish drink. I described the taste to them (minus the bong comparison), and apparently I was spot on: they made it with a mixture of smoked fruit, sugar and water. Olga’s mother informed me that no one was a huge fan of the bong water, but as it is a tradition on Christmas they always serve it. This strict adherence to tradition was new to me as well: in my family, if we don’t like it, we don’t make it. It’s a simple creed, and it works well for us. It’s refreshing to look into the other side of the spectrum, though. As long as you know which things are just for show.

After the jello course we had fried fish and a kind of chick pea/sauerkraut paste that also went together beautifully. By this time I was starting to feel my stomach protruding at alarming levels, so I was relieved to hear that from there on out we would be switching to desserts. And OH what desserts! They were all homemade, of course. There were a variety of cakes and pastries with fruit and nuts baked inside, as well as a chocolate walnut cake with at least 5 types of alcohol added to it (they had to conform to the stereotype somehow, I was informed). The cake had Bailey’s, rum, and Polish vodka in the center layer, and even after being baked it packed quite a punch. I limited myself to one piece of the booze cake, figuring that I should wait until I get to know everyone before making a fool of myself.

Finally, when I was just about to pop, they announced that it was time to open presents. I had bought Olga’s immediate family all little gifts, and was expecting nothing in return. So I was surprised to find that they had bought me a few really thoughtful gifts, given the fact that they hadn’t met me until a few hours ago. Olga’s grandpa was adorable; someone had bought him big fluffy white slippers for Christmas, so naturally I had to break out the big white polar bear hat and make him a polar bear ensemble (not to worry:there are multiple pictures).

After around three hours of eating we all collapsed in a food+wine-induced coma on around the fire. That's when Olga felt it was a good time to tell me that there would be two more days of Christmas merrymaking, and much more food to go along with it. Instead of just celebrating Christmas Eve and Day, in Poland they take 3 days to celebrate. I'm not sure what the official reason for the third day is, but I'm not complaining. I do think that I may need to invest in some stretchy pants, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009:

Not surprisingly, the abundance of food has continued. Now we are on to Christmas Day #2, which Olga’s mother happily informed me in so many words that it would be a Day of Cheese. The first day was fish and vegetables, yesterday was meat, and today will be cheese. God I love this place. Despite it being the Day of Cheese, there was still a plate full of meat on the breakfast table, along with at least 7 different types of cheese, bread, fish, and my favorite plate of cakes. How are all of these people so skinny??

We took Pogo (Olga's adorable terrier) for a walk up Lodz’s only “mountain” today. According to Olga’s father it’s a whopping 220 meters high at the top. For some reason that I can’t really explain, I feel embarrassed for Lodz. The hill looked quite barren as it only had deciduous trees dotting it, and the leaves have long since died. That and it’s been raining for the past few days, so the trail up it was muddy enough to rival old Lake Alice. The view at the top was less than inspiring: I do love Poland with a passion, but that love does not extend to their architecture. Even Olga’s family house is just a big square block, with no visual enhancements to speak of on the outside. The inside is beautiful, spacious and homey, but you would never know that looking at it from the street. That is how almost every building that I’ve seen here is like: a big square cement block. The effect is quite desolate, purtroppo. It’s a good thing that the people are so warm and friendly.

11:00 pm:

Just wrapped up the last day of Polish Christmas, and it was another doozy. So much food...today one of the new dishes was kind of like an egg salad; with hard boiled eggs, sweet corn, pineapples, chicken, and some other spices mixed together. A strange combination that made me pause before I took my first bite, but the flavors actually complemented each other well. We also had a soup with some variety of spinach, fish stock, and hard-boiled eggs cut into fourths. If someone told me that those ingredients combined into an edible dish (let alone good) I’d call them a freaking liar. But somehow it worked! I'm taking Olga's mother home with me.

Wednesday, December 30th 2009:

We have just left the much-loved land of Polania and set off for the Northern shores of Scottyland. I can only hope the next leg of this mini-adventure will be as cool as the last. Poland was definitely the highlight of my Grand Adventure thus far. I haven’t had that much good food with good people in a long time, and I’ll always remember it fondly.