Sunday, August 31, 2014

Multicultural Festival Warsaw

What's better than markets? Multicultural street festivals. If there is anything I enjoy more than wandering the markets of foreign cities, it is wandering the street of my city when it has been taken over by booths from various countries playing traditional music and selling arts, crafts and tasty delicacies. I have been fairly anti-Warsaw as of late, partly due to the fact that all I have wanted for the past couple days was a good bowl of Pho and I have yet to find that here and partly due to the fact that it has been disturbingly cold for my poor, Texan blood.

Krakowskie Przedmiescie taken over by a parade and booths from all over the world.

I have been feeling homesick for a few days, now, missing mostly the range of cuisine that you can find in any supermarket in Austin. I also miss the number of different cultures you see on the average bus ride through the city. People from all over the world have settled in the States, and while I have chosen to leave that to experience the original cultures of the places I pick from a map, it is sometimes overwhelming to be so surrounded by a single foreign culture. Pretty sure the name for what I'm feeling is culture shock. A year or so late, but still. I guess it happens anytime.

It almost looks like I photoshopped pictures from Carnaval onto the streets of Warsaw.

Wait, we aren't in Brazil?

And they're back!

I have long been a believer in blending into whatever culture I choose to live in, if only because that is the best way to have an authentic experience. Study the language, eat the food, walk the streets at all times of the day, find the places the tourists don't go, become so immersed that you begin to use the phrasing of an ESL student. How else would a traveler truly understand the places they visit, except through seeing it, feeling it, tasting it the way a local would? Yet I come from a place where I could get virtually any cuisine with no difficulty, where many of my friends were from different countries. Sure, getting to know a place like a local is an experience unlike any other. Sometimes I still want to be able to get on a bus and see faces of every color or walk into a supermarket and have the world's cuisine at my fingertips.

When it comes to multiculturalism and diversity in Warsaw, the most positive thing I can say is that it's changing for the better. I have no idea what the city was like 10, 20, 50 years ago. What I know is the Warsaw of today, which seems to be trying it's best to attract and keep people from all over the world. I am starting to find the diversity of Warsaw: the restaurants, the spice shops, the festivals.

 When I first arrived with a friend to the Multicultural Street Festival, I was overwhelmed. What is this? Booths from Turkey, India, Nepal, Tibet, Sicily, Georgia, Cuba, Mexico, Hungary! Dance groups, a parade with the brightly colored feathered headdresses of Carnaval, African drumming, hip hop, an enormous Ukrainian flag that takes up the entire street! Every booth selling foods, some that smell of roadside marshrutka stops in the middle of Georgia, some that smell like my memories of Trabzon and Istanbul! Baklava!

I can no longer keep track of the countries!

Oh, this one I know! 

Sadly, it was an eye-opening experience for me to see all of these different cultures mashed together on the streets of Warsaw between the Presidential Palace and the Old Town square. This city has its limitations when it comes to multiculturalism, but it is still the capital of an Old World country whose history spans longer than I can imagine, coming from such a young country. Sitting with a friend eating pizza the other week, I made a comment about the view needing some mountains and my friend laughed. How cynical must I be to criticize the view while sitting in the Old Town square of a beautiful, historical city with the strength to come back from total destruction in less than 75 years? Clearly, I needed to have my eyes opened a bit, and my mind.

Nothing better than khinkhali and beer at a street festival on a sunny late-summer Sunday.

Maybe my grumpiness is from the lack of tongue-searing food here. Or maybe I just need some tacos. Where are the tacos, Warsaw?!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hot Wine, Hot Women

Alright, there aren't any hot women in this post other than myself and my traveling companion, but I thought it sounded catchy so I went with it. I won't even bother talking about how long it's been since I posted and just move onto my latest travel experience: Budapest.

Before I begin, I will preface by saying that the reason for this trip was not my usual spontaneous desire to see another country. I had been planning on going out of town the same weekend, but only to Wroclaw, which was much closer and easier. After some not so nice news (understatement) about a friend back home, I decided I needed a more drastic change to remind me why I am living 5,000 miles from all of my loved ones.

Reason number one: Szechenyi thermal baths

I must give some appreciation to my traveling companion, who bought a couple bottles of wine and took a night train with me, even though when I invited her to come along I was crying in the hall of our preschool. She took it in stride and when we woke up sprawled across our train bunks, we were only an hour outside of Budapest. The train ride would have been enough to remind me how much I love traveling. But no. We then decided to visit a few castles, parks, and baths (where we spent an entire day getting massages and sitting in every sauna we could find). Afterwards we did the only sensible thing: bought wine and chocolate and spent a few hours lounging in the apartment we rented until it was time for goulash and a ruin pub.

Reason number two: bizarre, junk-filled pubs with hilarious people-watching potential and interesting art on the walls (bonus: sitting in ramshackle cars turned into benches)

Following our evening of people-watching, we did the usual stroll along the Danube back to our apartment. We stumbled upon some ruins that were showcased through windows in the ground. This would have been interesting, but became downright entertaining when a couple guys started to approach us and I simply waved my hand at them and yelled no in every language I could think of,  "Nyet! Nie! Nein! No! Non! Ara!" According to my friend, they looked extremely confused and wandered away. I call success.

By the time we got back to our apartment it was the wee hours of the morning and we had come to the decision that Budapest was possibly magical. We barely ever planned and everything seemed to be working much more smoothly than any usual spontaneous weekend vacation (some of which end in seriously sad choices).

Reason number three: beautifully focused pictures of the Danube

Our next day was to be our 'wander around and see everything we can manage' day. We started with the Grand Market, which turned out to be closed on Sundays, so we switched plans and just made our way to Castle Hill and most of the top sites to be seen. Horrible selfies were taken, there was some Transylvanian funnel cake and finally there was a view from Fisherman's Bastion of the Danube and Parliament that solidified my conviction that someday I will live in Budapest. Maybe not in 5 years, but someday. A city with no skyscrapers seems like a pretty great city to me.

Reason number four: views like this

I can only speak for myself in this matter, but Budapest's lack of skyscrapers was a selling point I can't even express. Coming from the land of whose-is-bigger makes small, understated cities with history quite attractive. When the seemingly highest point is a crazy chevron roofed church and one of the best views is from a white structure that closely resembles a gnome's house, that sounds like the kind of place I could see myself living for a few years. Night cruises on the Danube, trips to the thermal baths on the weekends, luxurious violin-music filled afternoons overlooking the Parliament? Sounds like a fabulous time. The only thing we didn't do on our weekend trip was the night cruise, and that was simply for lack of time.

Reason number 5: Markets. Markets. I absolutely love Markets.

Our last day saw us gift-shopping in the Grand Market. We weren't there for long, but long enough to spend as much money as we possibly could on various stereotypical Hungarian crafts. I don't know if it's the fact that markets simply aren't as popular in the States, or that Europe really just does folk crafts better, but markets are one of my favorite places to go in any country. One of the best memories I have of Georgia is the market in the town near my village that was covered in tarps and full of old men and women selling home-made wine, every knick-knack you could imagine and fresh produce. I loved the spice markets and Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the main market of Tangiers, the flea markets of Nice, the book sellers in Paris. Everywhere I go, I want to see the markets. (For those wondering, yes, I have been to markets in Poland and yes, I love them.)

When we finally realized it was time to make our way in the general direction of the train station/one more ruin pub, we hauled our goods and began to trek through the tourist streets. Despite spending almost all our cash on gifts in the market, we still scrounged together enough to get some gift chocolates and wine, plus a cup of hot wine for ourselves. We wandered mostly accurately (a little help from an iPad) until we came to our last ruin pub, where we relaxed and played cards until it was time to go to the train station.

Reason number six: is definitely a repeat of reason number two, just at a different bizarre, junk-filled ruin pub in a different enormous warehouse.

Finally, we caught a bus to the train station, found our seats on the train and readied ourselves to work an entire work-day after a night train. I was sick and sore, my traveling companion wasn't feeling any better, but our trip was a success and I was able to scratch another country off my map. There's nothing like a spontaneous, wine-filled, site-filled weekend in a country where the only word you know in the local language is hello.

The next post will possibly be within a reasonable time frame, what with Christmas, a trip to Texas and the snow promised in January and February, but I won't be holding my breath. Hope everyone has a great Christmas and visits some markets!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Feeling like a teacher

Most of my posts on here are about my travels, with just a few words about where I went, what I did, what I saw, etc. Usually, I don't say a lot about my day to day life. However, I think it's about time I spoke a little bit about being a teacher, both abroad and in America. Three years ago in August, I uprooted my entire life, packed my bags and flew across the ocean for the first time to live and teach in the Republic of Georgia. It was the biggest challenge I have ever faced and I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. There are so many sayings out there about living your life to the fullest and doing what you love and this was the first time I had finally felt like I understood what some of those sayings meant.

Snowball fights with the fourth graders.

Despite not having a teaching degree or any real experience in the classroom, by the end of my 10 months teaching in a small village outside of a small town in Western Georgia, I was the lead teacher in the classroom. I followed the books they provided, but added games, projects and activities. I was the one who prepared curriculum (for the most part) and I made an effort to get the kids interested in joining me for after school activities. Looking back, I was probably one of the worst teachers of the bunch. There is only so much you can learn in a classroom or online about classroom management, discipline, successful activities, age-appropriate materials, etc. Unfortunately, some of that you really need in order to deal with a bunch of 17 year olds. Especially when you yourself are only 3 years older than them.

Georgia may have been a bit of a reality check concerning my teaching skills, but when I went back to the US and became a preschool teacher I had another sort of reality check. There is an enormous difference between working with a classroom of pubescent children and working in a classroom filled with toddlers. One can find advantages and disadvantages for either, but for me it became painfully clear that working in the toddler classroom was much closer to my interests. For a year and a half, I dealt with stinky diapers, screaming children, too many toddlers in one classroom (there should never be 20 two year-old children in a classroom) and everything else that comes with attempting to teach small children.

Two of my girls here in Poland, doing their absolute favorite thing: coloring!

After my year from hell, involving everything from the above mentioned too many children to hospital visits to CT scans to family drama, it occurred to me that running away might actually be a solution to my problems. I may have been negative my last few months in Georgia (the village life wears you down), but in the end I remembered most the times that I loved. The weekend trips to the mountains, to Tbilisi, to the coast. The friends I made in various expat circles. The days where I woke up wondering why in the world I thought it was a good idea to go to a Georgian suppra when I knew full well I would wake up in that exact state. So, with all that in mind, I once again began applying to teaching positions abroad. This time, though, I went for pre-schools.

She made an amazing lion for our pictionary about animals!

The school I currently work at is one of the most amazing jobs I have ever had. There are issues, inevitably, and dramas and all of the silly little things you have to deal with when you work in a preschool. There are also some of the most amazing children I have ever met. These kids will translate for me. I work with two classes of 3 to 4 year old kids. They make me feel shame for my lack of languages, and I'm the person who is planning on committing 2 nights a week to learning Polish, just because I live in Poland. But these kids! There are so many moments that have happened while I was teaching that just made me feel so damn proud. When one of my newest students who spoke absolutely no English looked at me during breakfast the other day and said, "I love you." When we were doing circle time and talking about how we feel, I began to change pace and one of my little boys stopped me and said, "Helen, how do you feel?" When I was reading a book to a mixed group of 20 kids from 3 to 6 years old while two teachers moved tables and chairs around us, and every kid was engaged and listening to my story. Whenever I hear my kids singing the ABCs or counting to themselves in English. When my kids explain things to me in English, it may be broken English and there may be grammatical mistakes, but they are 4 years old and they can convey where, when and what happened.

The parents probably hate how often their children are sent home covered in paint, but the kids love it and I get to wonder how he managed to get green hand-prints on his arms when he was using red!

It's all these little moments that make my teaching worth it. It's also these moments that have made me finally feel like a teacher. I don't know if I will always feel this excited to go to school. I don't know if I will always love teaching as much as I do now. But those moments, those are the ones I remember. And they're the ones that have made it easy for me to fall in love with living in Warsaw. When going to work involves 30 four year old children jumping on you and excited to see you? That's a job worth going to in the morning.

Georgia, Krakow, Rome, Barcelona - Yikes!

Holy guacamole, how time flies! Every year seems to go by more quickly than the last. Compared to when I was a teenager, a year seems like no time at all. Three years even less so! It's been about 8 months since I first hopped a plane to this side of the pond and it boggles my mind entirely when I think about how much has already happened. I've visited a grand total of 6 countries this year, including ones I have visited before.

One of my biggest dreams has always been to see a festival of lanterns. Warsaw delivered for the start of summer concert. Not just lanterns, but fireworks!

In order to make this a fairly brief entry (because if I went into detail about everything that has happened in the last five months, anyone reading this would probably faceplant into their computers with boredom), I'm going to do a summary by country. Pictures will be included, of course, since half the reason I began this blog in the first place was to show people the places I have visited. My words will never come close to being able to describe the breathtaking beauty of some of the things I've seen.

The view from my friend's balcony in Tbilisi. I could get used to a view like that!

It only makes sense to go chronologically, so I'll begin with my trip to Georgia back in May. I had not really been planning on taking a trip so soon after arriving in Poland, but when I found out the majority of my Hash (of the Hash House Harriers) friends would be leaving Tbilisi, I simply couldn't say no. As with all my whirlwind trips, there was very little planning involved (though my spontaneity is limited, what with the German in me insisting on at least one budget before leaving). I hopped the plane and somehow managed to explain to the taxi driver in my broken Georgian not only where I was going but why I was in Georgia, why I spoke Georgian and that I was currently a pre-school teacher in Poland. I was pretty darn proud of myself for that exchange.

The weekend in Georgia was as stereo-typically Georgian as I could make it, considering I was spending the vast majority of my time with people who were not from Georgia at all, but rather from various countries all over Europe. In the end, there were two 10 k hikes, one of which included wearing a red dress and sprinting through the rain. There was a little bit of throwing up behind the security booth of the Mariott. There may have been a bit of staying up until sunrise drinking and talking. And as happens with every single weekend that I am in Georgia, the night before my flight home consisted of a 2 hour drunken nap instead of any real sleep.

Yes. Yes, he is dancing with a wine bottle balanced on his head. No, he did not drop it. My clumsy self was thoroughly impressed by this show of balance.

All of that made for one of the best weekends so far this year, though it's fairly difficult to compare any trip when I've made so many in such a short period of time.

The Jewish cemetery in Krakow. The rain made it even gloomier, but also more beautiful with the wet stone contrasting the green grass.

Lovely wanderings in Krakow.

For June and July, I stayed in Poland and hosted a couple visitors. One of those visitors happened to be my best friend from the States who I have been trying to do a Eurotrip with for quite a long time. We decided on Rome and Barcelona. She stayed with me for two weeks in Warsaw (with one weekend trip to Krakow, as the photos above showed), flew out to Florence for a week and then I hopped a plane to meet her in Rome. (Side note: That is my absolute favorite thing about living in Europe. Being able to say, "Oh, we can just meet in Rome/Paris/London/Berlin since it's convenient.) We spent 4 days legitimately walking the entire city, eating as much pizza and gelato as we could, and drinking all of the prosecco. All of it. Somehow, we managed to see almost every single major site in 3 days, so the fourth day we took a break and took a train to the coast.

And now the touristy photos begin. Trevi fountain by night.

The Colosseum. Definitely worth the heat and crowds, just to see it.

Unfortunately, we were too burnt out after wandering around all day and walking through the Vatican museum to actually go inside St Peter's (I know, I know). Clearly, I'll just have to revisit Rome. Darn.

Absolutely worth the sand I found in all parts of my clothing for the rest of the trip.

After all those sites, a day spent lounging on the beach with an American brother and sister we met on the train was exactly what the doctor ordered. The next day we packed up and flew to Barcelona. Ah, Barcelona. Next to Istanbul and Dresden, Barcelona is absolutely one of my favorite cities. It has everything I could want! Beaches, sangria, tapas, sexy men, beautiful architecture (Gaudi, just...Gaudi), winding gothic roads, beautiful views , a museum of chocolate. What more could a person ask for? Our time in Barcelona was mostly spent drinking and eating and wandering near the beach. I had my first experience tanning topless on a public beach, which was much less embarrassing than I thought it would be. Who knew? We also visited the Picasso museum and I did my trek to Park Guell the day my friend left. 

Love this view. Gaudi's whimsical architecture is some of my favorite. It screams Dr Seuss and magic and imagination to me.

One of the many piazza's we visited during our trip. The Europeans truly love their squares and plazas and piazzas.

Sunset walk along Barcelona's beaches? Don't mind if I do. 

One of my favorite views of Barcelona. The hike to Park Guell is pretty wicked in the August sun, but it is worth it for the shade, the mosaics, the beautiful twisted columns and the view.

Coming back to cool, rainy Poland after spending a week in beautiful, hot, sunny weather was a bit of a shock. I made it okay, though, and had a second trip to Krakow at the end of August to look forward to. Some of my friends from Georgia are currently on an epic road trip through Europe. I am insanely jealous, as would be expected, but someday I hope to do the same. Well, I have managed to summarize my major trips, though I haven't said a single thing about my day to day life in Warsaw. Next time, then, I'll talk about that and my first week of school, which went even better than I could have expected. Hope everyone had a wonderful summer and is ready to be back in the grind!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day Tripping

I have a crush on Poland. It came on unexpectedly when I was walking through the park on my way home from babysitting eating an ice cream cone and watching all the kids run around with face paint and balloons. It was the rain-soaked trees, the sun through the leaves making them glow green, the smell of wet blossoms and the fact that in the middle of the largest city in Poland I can get completely lost in a park and wind up seeing peacocks. These are all specific to spring in Warsaw, you say, so what about other places in Poland?

One of the many little girls wandering around in adorable, miniature traditional Lowicz outfits.

For starters, Polish spring time has so far involved a large number of unexpected holidays. When I got back from my trip to Tbilisi last weekend, I was expressing my wish that I did not have to work a full week after an exhausting 4 day binge. My co-workers gave me strange looks and said, "You realize we don't work Thursday, right?" Say what! That's right, apparently Corpus Christi in Poland is a national holiday. A friend of mine asked if I was interested in visiting a town called Lowicz, about an hour's train ride from Warsaw. Having never heard of it before and having no idea what it would entail, I immediately jumped on board for a trip to see whatever it is that was outside of Warsaw.

This awesome lady rode up on a bicycle, and I was unfortunately not quick enough to catch it.

Little did I know, that it was actually an enormous festival day, involving an hour long church service followed by a procession of traditional Lowicz dress and a concert presenting traditional music and dance. I think the day would have been magical even if I had been prepared, but being entirely unaware only added to the wonder.

Looking sassy while carrying the largest rosary I have ever seen.

The church service itself was projected throughout the main square and church for everyone to hear. While I am neither religious nor fluent in Polish, it was still a beautiful experience. I stood there listening to them sing and chant and praise the lord while everyone from toddlers to old women were wandering around in full, colorful skirts and headdresses, riding bikes and whispering to their neighbors. Tourists wandered in and out of the crowd taking pictures, and I unluckily missed a brilliant picture involving at least 9 tourists facing different directions taking pictures in various states of kneeling, crouching and pointing.

There were too many of these banners to choose from when choosing photos, but I liked this one with the church in the background.

After the service, the men and women who were in traditional dress walked a slow circle around a city block or so. They all carried banners streaming with ribbons and moving in the wind. Every age was represented, from tiny toddlers holding onto their mother with one hand and a ribbon with the other, to old women who looked as if they'd been wearing these dresses every day through every historical event that Poland has seen. The procession was ended with who I can only assume was the bishop of the church, as he was proceeded not only by the traditionally dressed masses, but also by incense and a collection of nuns and priests.

I am not sure why they were kneeling, but every person who could understand the service (which continued while they walked) knelt at this point.

With absolutely perfect timing, we sat down in a restaurant after the procession just as the skies opened and it began to rain. We ate our pizza while watching people running for cover under awnings or pulling umbrellas from bags and pockets. Under the impression that the concert would be just that, I was surprised to find that there were also booths selling traditional items set up all around another square about 5 blocks away from the main square and church. It was a goodbye trip for my friend, so we wandered around the square buying various items that could only be found in Poland while listening to a full orchestra and choir play and sing Polish music.

The full orchestra and choir.

I was sorely tempted to buy this basket, but was not quite prepared to travel back on the train carrying it.

I was in debate about whether I wanted to stay much longer, but when the dancers took the stage I couldn't resist staying and watching. I was yet again surprised because it wasn't just Polish traditional dancing, but also various other countries. though difficult to distinguish what they were announcing in Polish, I believe some of the countries represented were Albania, Macedonia and Portugal. The reasoning behind these choices was likely explained, but I was unable to figure it out.

The first of the traditional Polish dancing. 

This was the Albanian group, I believe, though don't quote me on that.

Finally, I was exhausted from being in the sun and on my feet, so I left my two friends and caught the train back to Warsaw. What began as a quick day-trip turned into a day of discovering the beauties of traditional Poland. I plan on going back to the festival before I leave to buy some of the beautiful crafts that they had at the booths. The only thing I purchased was a wooden spoon with a happy face carved in it, as I was low on funds at the time. But, rest assured Lowicz, I will be back to visit you!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

From Poland, With Love

I've only been in Warsaw for about two months and it feels as if I've already seen three different seasons. I left France ready to start my next adventure and especially ready to no longer live out of a backpack. Unfortunately, I also left with a head cold and hearing loss in one ear. When I was waiting for my flight from Istanbul after my one-night layover and my ear popped while having a coffee, it may have been one of the highlights of the trip. Having hearing in only one ear while trying to find a hostel at night in a foreign, non-English speaking country is a once in a lifetime experience. I hope.

Warsaw as seen from a bonfire on the banks of the river.

Once I got to Warsaw, I was expecting trouble at the desk, if only because when they inevitably asked the question, "How long are you staying?" My response would be, "Three years. And no I have no proof of work or residency. Yay!" Surprisingly, there was no issue and I was able to get through to meet up with my welcome party, which turned out to be a fellow English teacher and the assistant director of the school. We hopped in a cab to my new apartment and quickly went over the usual welcome information: map, phone, keys, directions to school, bus pass, good luck! My assistant director left and I was now with a fellow American who had volunteered to show me a place to grab groceries and how to take the bust to work. Time was tight and my tour guide had a movie to attend, so my first night in Warsaw I took the bus alone back to my apartment with my groceries where I made a salad and had my first Polish beer in Poland.

The next two weeks saw some of the heaviest snow of the winter, prompting the immediate purchase of a pair of waterproof boots. Easter was celebrated with the usual festivities, plus the creation of the largest snow bunny I have ever made or seen. He was very popular with everyone entering or exiting my building, and I was highly entertained by all the pointing and picture-taking while I had my morning coffee the day after I made him.

I could only convince one person to play in the snow with me. Apparently six months of the stuff will exhaust even the most enthusiastic of snow-lovers. We'll see.

I feel like I should have named him, but instead I just gave him a carrot that somewhat resembles a cigar.

I learned fairly quickly that school does not get cancelled for a measly 8 inches of snow, as that would mean there would be no school from October to April. I also learned that getting 3 year olds ready to go out in the snow is a monumental task involving more layers than an onion. According to my Polish friends, this is actually a saying. Dress like an onion? Well, I guess layers make sense when you have 6 or 7 months of winter. From a Texan point of view, this is a fairly daunting thought.

I couldn't resist building a snow fort. My first ever!

Once the snow finally melted, though, I learned just what people were looking forward to. It was almost as if  every tree, shrub and vaguely green area realized on cue that winter was over and spring had begun, so the entire city exploded in flowers. I was expecting to be constantly carting around a box of tissues, but my allergies were surprisingly mild (read: non-existent). All I had to do was swap my winter coat for my lighter jackets, use cotton scarves instead of wool and there we go, Spring. Of course, that lasted about three weeks and then it was suddenly in the mid-seventies and felt like summer. All the boots disappeared from the stores and suddenly everything was sunglasses and beach prints and swimsuits.

I have no idea what these bushes are, but they were absolutely everywhere. They smelled amazing and made my daily commute significantly more pleasant.

Wilanow palace, which is a 15 minute walk from my house. Somewhere I have pictures of the gardens, but those will have to wait for another day.

With summer comes weekly Chopin piano concerts in the park, something I had been looking forward to since I heard about it my first day in Warsaw. Two Sundays ago was the first such concert of the season, and the weather seemed to decide to go along with the theme of summer vacation, because it was sunny, hot and muggy. We laid on the grass and listened to Chopin under a perfectly blue, cloud-studded sky and followed that with a picnic in my backyard which included all the junk food under the sun plus enough dandelion wishes to make the chances of one actually coming true a little more likely.

The lovely string quartet that entertained us while we found places to sit under the trees before the concert began.

Overall, the last two months have been a blur of new people, new routines and new things to fall in love with. I am absolutely positive there is more to say about everything that has gone on in the past couple months ( pretty much anything to do with work), but as it's taken me two months to even write this, I figured a general overview would be better than attempting to detail everything that's happened. Hopefully in the next few months I'll get into a better habit of writing and then I'll be able to talk more about work, my kids, a few of my adventures in Warsaw, etc.

The only tulip in my backyard was droopy, so we used it as the centerpiece for our Alice in Wonderland-esque picnic.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

An experiment in semi-controlled sliding

The past two Sundays have been the same: croissants for breakfast, two hour hike in the forest, lunch, long nap, hanging out and watching TV, dinner, sleep/Skype. Of all the things I will miss about France, high on the list is the mountains, the cheese and the wine. I have my fingers crossed that Warsaw has good supermarkets so I can find delicious cheeses, otherwise I'm going to have to start importing cheese or find myself a cheese dealer. 

The hiking, though, the hiking! France has thoroughly surpassed all my expectations in terms of hiking and walking trails. The countryside is criss-crossed with trails that wind through forests, up mountains, around villages and over rivers. With my host dad, there hasn't been nearly as much following of trails, though. Apparently, he's been walking in the forests that surround my house for the past 15 years, so he knows them well enough to periodically wander off the trail. It's possible, of course, that there are trails I just can't see.

Our hiking partner is thrilled to be wandering the forests.

Usually on my hikes I see quite a few people, both in the villages I pass through and just randomly throughout the trails. For some reason, though, the forest across the street from my house was completely empty both times we went hiking. It may be that there are so many trails that it's difficult to run into someone, but I chose to just assume that it was my personal forest. 

The light was particularly magical this morning, and yet again I found myself wishing I had a better camera so I could actually capture what I see.

This little hut was apparently used by the lumberjacks to eat lunch while they were working in the forest. I plan on quitting my job, sprucing it up a bit and moving in.

The uphill hikes were intense, because rather than switchbacks we just left the trail and hiked straight up towards the top of the hill. I don't know if the French don't believe in switchbacks, but most of the trails around here have been like that. It's bizarre, because switchbacks take longer, but they're much nicer on the calves. The view at the top, however, was definitely worth the hike.

This is the view from the Northern side. It's difficult to tell, but the little bump above the pine tree furthest to the right is actually Roquefixade, the castle where I went hiking my first weekend in France.

On the Southern side, the Pyrenees. It's always difficult to get photos of snow-capped peaks when it's cloudy, because the mountains seem to connect with the clouds as if there is no separation between mountain and sky.

My favorite part of the two hikes from the past two weekends, though, was last weekend when we were hiking back. There has been a lot of snow and rain the past couple weeks, so the entire forest was saturated. Often there were streams along the trails and because not all of the trees were evergreen, everything was covered with a layer of leaves. At this point, it was time to test the traction of my new hiking shoes. There were more times than I could count when instead of walking, I felt like I was snow-boarding on leaves. The mud and leaves combined made footing slippery, so while our feet were skidding beneath us it was all we could do to hold our walking sticks out to balance and not fall on our asses.

The most unpredictable were the trails where there was water flowing under and around the leaves. My host dad was walking (read: surfing on leaves) in front of me, and seeing him sliding downhill unexpectedly of course set me off laughing, so half of the reason that I was sliding was because I couldn't stop laughing and therefore wasn't completely in control of my movements. As I mentioned earlier, the French apparently don't use switchbacks, so some of the downhill sections were steeper than I would like. Suffice to say that the descent was much quicker than the ascent.

The sliding was fun, but the obstacles were hazardous at times.

A week from today, I'll be in Poland. I'm both nervous and excited. I've been looking forward to this for months, now, and the waiting has made it worse. I'm happy I decided to travel for a couple months before arriving, because I think if I had waited in Texas for that time, I would have gone slowly but surely crazy. Anyway, I doubt I'll write anything more until I get settled in Poland (unless I see something ridiculously cool in Istanbul, where I'll be staying a night before I get to Warsaw). Au revoir, France!