Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Pole doesn't daydream, he thinks of blue almonds.

Poles also don’t believe in jaywalking.

Ninety percent of Warsaw was systemically razed to the ground by Nazi Germany, so the city is now crisscrossed by Soviet boulevards.

Enormous roads. Plazas filled with monuments.

Atop a mud mound overlooking Krakow
Warsaw's main square
On these big ol’ crossings, no cars are seen for minutes, but crowds of Poles stand in ranks looking at each other across the street, quietly waiting. 

Apparently the Wehrmacht were so thorough in destroying everything that an 18th century landscape painting had to be used to recreate the city.

Which is why I spend most of my time in Krakow.

Before leaving London, I chatted with a girl from Maine and we discovered we were both going to Warsaw. Or at least she intended to since I had to quietly point out to her that her flight was bound for Wrocław

No, Wrocław is not the Polish way to spell Warsaw.

I'm the first one off the plane into passport control, and spend only enough time in Warsaw to pick up a pączek (best jelly donuts ever, and the woman was surprised I'd had them before as sufganiyot).

And then I'm on the train south to Poland's old capital.

Krakow's main square (Rynek Główny)

My priority is usually dumplings, and then everyone I love, in that order. 

I started hunting for pierogi.

I picked out a joint with a patio around the corner from St. Florian's Gate. It's from the 14th century when the Turks were pushing up on Poland's borders, so a great place to eat dumplings, and watch a woman spill beet soup all over her muu muu.

Red splish splash.

The city is so green. Krakow in spring is apparently leafy and it's best to try to go somewhere with a detour through tree tunnels.

My hostel is just on the northeast corner of Planty Park, a five acre amoeba that includes the entirety of the Old City.

I hear trumpets, so I dash into the Main Square in time to see the hourly tooting from the church towers of St. Mary's, done by volunteers from the local fire brigade.

There was no plaque explaining this giant sad head.
There are fresh rhubarb tarts for just a euro each, so perfect walking food on the way to Wawel Castle

Apparently a big chunk of it was flown over to Chicago to put into the Tribune Tower to flag it as the biggest Polish community outside the country itself. 

I do remember how many dumplings I had in Chicago, so yes, New Poland is in Illinois.

It's a solid place to watch the sunset and then to wander into the old Jewish area.

The next morning, I hopped on the first bus towards Auschwitz, the concentration camp right by the little town of Oświęcim.

As we got closer, we kept thinking the bars of the birch forests and each barbed fence meant we were there.

The town that bumps up against the old death camp is so incredibly normal. They have a Carrefour and a McDonald's, and what seems like a lot of street parking.

It's disconcerting to be here on a perfect spring day.

The place is unreal enough as it is, and to see it while birds are chirping and swooping around makes it all the easier to think of it as just a massive museum. And then it keeps occurring to me that 1.1 million people died here.

I'm pretty glad that I showed up early enough to not need a tour guide to wander the camp. It's really good to be able to go through all the exhibits whenever there isn't a crowd, to just walk around and blink and look.

Auschwitz is unsettling in its banality, in how structured everything is. Each country's dead had its own building : the Jews of Holland, Bohemia, Russia, etc. Here is the wall where people were shot, here is where people were hung, here is where they bathed.

At the grotesque twin camp of Birkenau just ten minutes by shuttle away, it's the scale of it that pulls at your mind.

Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two of these places just giant lesions and it's hard to say what all these crowds of people, what we're all hoping to see here.

Spanish tourists pushed and shoved onto the shuttle, squawking that they were in a group ahead.

I don't think they appreciate the weirdness of pushing onto a crowded tram bound for Birkenau.

At this second camp, there were no exhibits. The railroad tracks led straight in and diverged before splitting again. The buildings for prisoners had been made of wood, so only the chimneys had survived and now these brick monuments sprawl to the horizon.

The crematoriums looked like they had only recently collapsed at the far end of the camp where forest crept back in again.

Signage indicated that Jewesses had revolted against their grim duties and with the help of outside youths had blown up the giant ovens.

I don't think I felt much of anything until I sat down next to the fields of chimneys and bright yellow flowers. And then you're kinda just WHOOSH.

Auschwitz is relentless in its presentation, halls filled with nothing but whorls of human hair, another with prayer shawls, hairbrushes, suitcases, pots and pans.

I was alone in one hall where a heartbeat continuously throbbed and only the outlines of people floated on the walls, like the wraiths left behind after Hiroshima.

Walls of names and so many faces, one just of children, so many people who had no idea what was upon them. 

One man was quoted feeling like it was all a big misunderstanding, that if he could just explain it to the German soldiers, it would be okay.

I've taken a class on historical trauma, interviewed refugees whose families tried to kill them, and edited accounts of shtetl life, but the physicality of being in a barracks where people had died two to a bunk, or standing in an underground "shower" lit only by a skylight where Zyklon B would be thrown in,

That stuff takes your breath away.

There were lots of Israeli tourists, divided into same-gender groups, but all wearing the Israeli flag as capes.

I was glad I had another hour before the bus back to Krakow came. I helped a family from Illinois get tickets for the same trip, and then just flopped down to nap in the sunlight.

The bus ride back was fun, and I ended up going out to dinner with the Midwest couple and their son.

He and I hiked to the top of Kościuszko Mound, a big jelly mold of dirt that looks over the city.

The mound has no handrails, so I take the outside curve when we run into folks descending. A deaf family took my picture, we got a big boot of dark beer, and it was off to bed.

The best thing to go with a cold breakfast is a visit to the next door Warhammer megastore and then back to the old Jewish area.

Three shots at the underground bar, one quince, one cinnamon, and a orange blossom flower.

And then it was synagogue time.

Alte shul

Cheder Cafe had a spiced Israeli coffee in a big finjan kettle. I sat out the showers of rain with Jew-Jitsu, the Hebrew Hands of Fury, and a peek into the Kabbalah of Food.

One last plate of pierogi in Krakow, and there are illustrations of the Pierogozord. He is armed with a fork as tall as he is, and his body is made up of two pierogi touching.

Groat and pork dumplings, mm.

Warsaw Uprising Museum
Train back to Warsaw, and it's nice to have tea served so often. Fields of lurid rapeseed, canola, fronds of wild grain, feathery gusts of pale butterflies over the muddy fields. 

We zip through spindletrees like leafy bar codes as the train slides through the spring rain, couples huddled together under umbrellas on the overpasses.

Once in Warsaw, I picked up some pickled herring and salmon, and ambled down Solidarity Avenue toward the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

I don't regret the walk, but Old Town Warsaw looks like a Hollywood set. Particularly after coming back from Krakow, the fake aging shows.

My flight is at 6 am the next morning, so I'll be sleeping in the Warsaw Airport that night.

I pedal on an exercise bike for an hour at the shopping mall because that's how you can charge your phone there.


Quick nap outside the palace of Culture and then I'm the sole passenger on the bus to the airport.

Ye Olde and new buildings
Also, Warsaw wins my award for Most Comfortable Airport to Sleep In.

I found the below nook on the second floor. Dim, shielded, quiet, and there were even four outlets to charge things. The website Guide to Sleeping in Airports is magical.

I land in London and head straight to work on a windy Tuesday.

Friday, May 1, 2015

If you let that Cthulhubird fly away, you'll regret it later.

Something not quite right about the denizens of Bath 
At the door, I hand over a jug of my kombucha, and I'm issued a mint choco cookie before we teeter-totter upwards to the roof. A sack of bloody chops slips out of our little hands, and the squidge of it landing on pavement makes me worried about coming back down again in the dark. 

But then the spires and steeples of London float into view, we shut up for a while.  

The tiniest grill I've ever seen gets set up. The natives are obsessed with these 6 in. x 4 in. cardboard boxes that somehow burst into dusty flame and sustain. I'm sure carcinogens are involved here, or deep magic.

I'm put to work lighting coils of heartwood. Palo santo smells like backyard Oakland to me, and like Barcelona for the two milky pale girls sharing the couch. 

The poi starts in lazy circles, and the sun disappears into a pink gloom. Chortling with our mouths full, eyes glimmering in a drone of swirling fire, and then the Little Heater that Could blows out with a sparky shudder.

There's a pot of spiced greens, a tank of basmati, and lentils enough to drown armies. My love of condiments is well-sated. 

Good people, good eats.

Spring is ridiculous.
Steamspunk spaceship (aka the Albert Memorial)
So I have a month and change left in England, and I fully intend to spend as many nights on rooftops and dancing around fires. It's even Beltane tonight, so we're going to get our May Pole dancing shoes on!

And just one more weekend left in London since I'm going full Adventure Mode in May. 

I'll wander the barracks of Auschwitz this Sunday, make Istanbul my home base for ten days, and then subsist on canned herring and peanut butter in Copenhagen before camping in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. 

I'll rest up when I stumble onto the plane in June and just sit still for ten hours.

Union Chapel is probably my favorite place in England.
So many people have kept me grounded here, taken me on tilts at windmills, and even if we haven't quite found the right Narnia, I'm already missing the poop out of all of you.

London became such a comfortable treehouse of a city, and I kinda want to gather you all up and start a really low-key cult in Tennessee. 

I swear there won't be kool-aid, our robes will be downright tasteful, and again, there are multi-bedroom houses with acres of land at prices that even the activist & artist crowds have enough pocket money to afford.

London Buddhist Centre around the corner from my flat
I'm ecstatic about being back in the Bay Area though, and having David here in England for a week was the best thing to come home to after leaving the faerie castle. 

I woke up on Sunday morning and happened to spot him outside my flat window trawling a suitcase, headed confidently in the wrong direction. By the time I threw on clothes and ran him down, he's almost done orbiting the block, but he's here now and so sleepy he's drawling.

The shambolic neon of God's Own Junkyard kept me glowing after a free meal at Hurwundeki with Nina & Hannes. And David started to come out of Pacific Daylight Time.

There's been so much I've wanted to share with him, so I did my best to pack in all the glittery bits of London that make me happy. 

Kinda ominous at night
But it's sparklepony fantasies inside!

A spot of brekkie before a caffeine hunt each morning, which leaves us wondering if hip coffeehouses around the world come with standard issue parts (pendant lighting, wood paneling, etc.).

Since I'm a vassal of Tower Hamlets borough, I get the two of us past the Beefeaters into the Tower of London for £1.20. We join the people queuing on the parapets, polite arrows of force directing everyone to keep left. 

It's just so orderly, we're rearing to break formation, craning to see what might be holding people up. 

Tuts are tutted out of the sides of mouths, heads shake, but the spring showers makes everything glow, and it seems a third of London has descended on the banks of the Thames, the wind carrying burnt sugar from the roast nut vendors. 

Metal baboons squat on top of buildings, and we're on a conveyor belt that slowly carries us past the crown jewels.

We run from patchy rain cloud to the next, and then we're in East Ham with Julia & Gauri for the most spectacular Indian meal I've had, though I'm easy when the parathas are steamy and ghee'd up.

Greenwich was where I spent my first weekend in London, thanks to Julia's suggestion, and it's still one of my favorite places to romp around. I somehow had never made it to Goddards for pie, mash, and eels, but better late than never for some vittles from the 1890s.

As usual, being Chinese means the first bite of eels was enough to slot it right into a culinary memory, and I want some black bean pungency to fry it all up. Watery cilantro goo just doesn't cut it, even if you call it liquor.

"No eels for me, thanks."
A day trip to Bath meant an early morning to catch a bus to Somerset, though napping on a cute boy's shoulder for a few hours made it worthwhile. 

Somehow Nepalese food at Yak Yeti Yak is the best lunch option in this tourist explosion, and for dessert we watched a local birdie glare at us while worms writhed in its beak

Cthulhu mouth-tentacles going wriggle wiggle. 

When the Gulf of S'glhuo yawns open, I can't be held responsible.

David indulged my obsession with East Asian ceramics, and we spent some time photographing the wrong Royal Crescent

Nowhere near big or curvaceous enough apparently, but we were getting tired of padding around tiny Bath.

Not the Royal Crescent by a long shot
And of course we had to step directly into the tourist bear trap that is the Roman Baths

Lincoln and I definitely got more bang for zero bucks in Barcelona's Roman undergrounds, but still, can't go to Bath without seeing the Baths.

Part of me is just enraged that you're not allowed to wade into the steamy fetid water.

Upon return to California, hot springs are on the agenda.

It was the day before Passover, so we felt obligated to do our part in eating all the leavened bread by trying Bath's #1 attraction: the Sally Lunn Bun.

I've never seen carbs with heavier marketing artillery ("a living museum you can eat!"), with one pamphlet praising its perfect union of brioche, bun, and cake since 1680.

We scurried into the basement past a surprisingly effective moat of Korean children writhing on the stairs, and a thin-lipped woman sold me a giant piece of bread.

There are no photos because David and I sat in front of Bath Abbey, and just tore it into it facefirst.

We are so ready for the Fruit Shelf.

Church fatigue, never got it.
What a...unique set of watery folds.
Dharma took us on one of his usual epic walks around London, and this time we hit up St. Ermin's with its secret tunnel to Parliament and Westminster Cathedral's sooty brick domes. 

Gentle prep for my Turkey trip!

Dharma really needs to give up his dream of having his beardy face on a train and start a walking tour company. 

Or smiley diplomat to the world's nations or something.

And then it was time to put David back on an airplane, and it felt good to say bye knowing that I wouldn't have to leave next time I see him in June.

Cast courts in V&A are pretty glorious.
We had a very British morning queuing for 1.5 hours for Valsakhi in the mechanic egg of City Hall. Spiraling staircases led to an endless Indian roti pile with a panoramic terrace overlooking Tower Bridge and the London skyline.

Kirtan all day, so the quiet singing of harmoniums wafted up to where we are told that we must drink raw milk for the sake of our health. 

I need to learn to play tabla drums.

Shining day of Surprise Tuesday off, so Zorah and I were camped out by the Victoria Park bandstand before 11 am. 

Gregory Alan Isakov singing about San Francisco and sunny California, and all I did was read in the sun and eat berries.

Canal boat barbecue!

"Straight men don't feed ducks together" is a nugget of Dharma wisdom I'll tuck away for posterity,

Whether cemetery wandering or pagoda napping, it's good to have friends who are down for anything.

KARL MARX in Highgate Cemetery
Victor Hugo got up at dawn and didn't even look at the harbor ships.
I don't think there's enough Yorkshire pudding.