Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mea culpa

My house is not clean. Neither is my apartment. My house is small for a house. I think my whole house could fit into my sister's garage...or slip nicely into her swimming pool. It's tiny. You get it. My apartment would be small for a living room, so as an apartment for 4 it is microscopic. But somehow, I cannot keep them clean. This is not a boohoo I have to clean two kitchens, defrost two fridges, iron a ton of clothes rant. Nope, it's not a post about that...because I don't do those things. I mean I clean occasionally. Anyone who has had the misfortune to use the bathroom at my place might say not often enough, but the Department of Health isn't declaring any emergencies or anything...yet. I just don't let it get in the way of life. I have a friend who can never go out and can never invite anyone in because she has to finish her ironing. I asked her if we didn't meet that day would she do her ironing instead? Because if not then what's the point? She'd never finish it. And who said you have to iron all the clothes before you put them away? We don't do it, and we are happy and wrinkle-free when we head out the door. It's not a rule. It's her rule. If your rule is not working for you, change it.

The first apartment we looked at was enormous. I didn't even once think about how I would clean it. It did imagine myself doing the waltz in the foyer, it was that big. Next I wondered why it was so cheap. I soon discovered that we couldn't view one room because Babcia was in that room dying and that the funny building across the street was a prison, but no worries, when criminals break out of prison the apartment across the street is not their ultimate destination. We did observe a 3-year-old child going to the store alone to buy a loaf of bread and a pack of smokes, so a top rate neighborhood overall.

Another apartment we looked at was located in a beautiful historic building, ok, potentially beautiful. It wasn't as large as the first one, but the living room was curved with the building, and the apartment had a very funny little balcony characteristic for the building. Ok, you couldn't go out on the balcony. It was prohibited for safety reasons, and you couldn't shut the bathroom door if you happened to be sitting on the toilet. And the grand staircase smelled of urine, but whatevs. I didn't know it then, but the building still had bathrooms in the hall on every other floor, hence the smell and the reason behind the extremely small bathroom. If I had known then what I know now (that children don't let you go to the toilet with the door closed), we might have bought it.

Another apartment was rented out to students who had made provisional divisions of the rooms that were most certainly illegal and definitely a fire hazard. We informed the owner that we were interested in seeing the apartment in the original skład and without the half a kilo of pigeon poo on the balcony. It must have been a sellers market because the owner didn't agree.

In the end, we settled on our little apartment in what was then considered the suburbs and what is now considered The City. We took a small mortgage and paid it off. The lady at the bank couldn't believe we didn't take more money, I mean, the bank was offering more but we took less. "You could buy a bigger apartment," she urged. I know it is attractive. If the bank thinks I can afford, then I must be able to afford it, right? Luckily I was raised by the financially paranoid, so I see only black scenarios. Ok, we would have a bigger apartment today that is true, but at the cost of our peace of mind. It may be small, but it is all ours.

Houses were another story. Some were big, others were small. They all had serious problems. But we were just looking. Just doing a favor for our friend who had just got her real estate license - needed to practice her spiel. You may not know this about me, but I am a house voyeur. I love to see how people live, and Poland still is a foreign country for me. I couldn't refuse an opportunity to see inside houses and look, really look, at them 'cause house voyeurism and looking to buy a house look the same from the outside. 

The house I was really interested in seeing turned out to be a disaster. There was a hole in the roof that had been there awhile allowing water to get in the house and turn to black mold...or mildew - I don't know what the difference is. Anyhow it was a no-go. It was too far, and too big, and did I mention the mold? The next place was 1/4 of a house. It wasn't that bad. It had shutters which we adored. There was something wrong with the floor, and you had to access the kitchen by going outside the apartment, and the land was not officially divided into four, but all of those problems were not serious. The serious issue was that a couple had put in an offer the day before and it had been accepted. But we were just looking for fun. Whatevs.

I have repeated this many times, and I will say it again. I have no idea what we were thinking when we decided to buy our house. When we arrived we were tired and had to wait in the yard for the neighbor to bring the key. The yard was overgrown and there were chickens everywhere. There was also chicken shit everywhere. Watch your step. There was (and still is) a lovely linden tree in the yard. There was also a little bench under the tree. It was adorable despite the chicken that was shitting on it at the time. Misiu looked at me and asked, "How much is that bench gonna cost me?"

The neighbor in his late 70s arrived with the key and proceeded to join us as we looked at the house. He did not miss a step. The house had not been lived in for years, since the gentleman who lived there the house we found out. We were checking out the basement at the time. That's when the neighbor pointing to the place where I was standing said in a pompous tone, "He died right there. Right where you are standing." I don't go to the basement much.

We looked at the old tile stove in the kitchen, at the hodgepodge of old German furniture and PRL classics, at the icons on the walls. The walls were painted with wałek a technique I had never seen before. Upstairs there was a bedroom with a feather bed and also a smoke room...and about a hundred empty bottles of denaturat I assume were used in the smoking process and played no role in the death of the owner. Misiu wanted to check how solid the floor was and discovered not very solid at all. You break it, you buy it, right?

We bought it. The falling down chimney, the crumbling outhouse, no water, no electricity. The whole kit and caboodle. We have a bathroom now, and water, and electricity. And no mortgage. It may be a bit of a ruin still, but it is all ours.

We didn't just buy it, just like that. We had time to back out. First the owners, 6 of them, had to work out the inheritance issues before they could sell it. We had to get permission from the Department of Agriculture to buy it because in fact it is a 2-acre farm. At the final signing (and paying) we reminded the owners that the house was full of their personal photos and we'd be there to sunset (no electricity). We invited them to come and give their childhood home a final look and to take their pictures. I also asked one granddaughter if she'd like to see her grandparent's house for the last time. Her answer was a curt, bordering on rude, "No". I later learned that she had never met her grandparents as she was the result of an extramarital affair. Whoopsie.

We went to what was now our house and just sat there in disbelief. I collected up the family pictures-first communions, weddings, Christmases, a funeral with the body on the table where I was sitting. One sister asked if she could come and take that table. After seeing that funeral pic I was happy that it would be going. But nobody came. We stayed to 10 pm to be sure. I packed up all the pictures and locked the door. We later dropped the box of pictures at the real estate agent to give to the family.

You know, they didn't give us that house. Well, they did, but in exchange for money, the exact amount of money they asked for the house. We didn't steal it from them. The bank didn't foreclose on them. There was no pressure. 

A few weeks after we had bought the house the sister who had wanted the table called and asked if we happened to be there because she was planning to be in the neighborhood and wanted to pick up her table. I told her that she'd have to arrange it another time because we weren't anywhere close. I also told her that her family pictures were waiting for her at the real estate agent. 

One week later, we came to our house only to see that we had been burgled. The door had been broken open and the place ransacked with some bigger items missing. My first thought of an innocent person with no evil intentions was that we had bad luck. The house had been empty for years and just when we bought it, somebody broke in.

You already know what happened, don't you? 

We ventured out into the garden wondering what we should do. The neighbor came out, saw that we were upset, and asked what had happened. We explained that we had been burgled. "You weren't burgled. The owner was here." I declared, "I am the owner." Sympathy ensued. Long story short, the sister got her table and any other things of value from the "family home" that we "took" from her family. She left a huge mess and damaged the door as well. When she realized that others might not see it the same way, she agreed to the deal that we offered her. If she returned and removed everything from the house and the barn, we wouldn't go to the police. Of course we were "boorish", "cruel", "greedy" and "thieves". Misiu explained "private property", "notary acts", "common decency" and whatnot. She held up her side of the deal and removed every last item excluding 3 pieces of furniture which she left after getting agreement from us. There was a lot of "Don't you know who I am?" and other bullshit, but when she and her trucks and dumpsters cleared out of there, it was the last we heard from her. It was a valuable lesson for us and for our real estate agent. Who would have thought somebody would do something like that?

After that I was a little worried about my reputation around the village but being proven to be in the right, village loyalty was on our side. One neighbor came to the fence for a chat and an attempt to figure out where I was from. 

He said, "Tell the truth, where are you from?" 

I explained that I was American. 

"Not German? Are you sure?" 

I assured him that I was sure of my own nationally.
"So you're not German? Never lived in Germany?"

I assured him that I had never lived in Germany. 

"So you're not the German lady who bought the old mill?" 

I assured him that I was not. 

"Because there's a rumor that there's gonna be a brothel there." 

My response, "Well, at least there'll be someplace to work."

And you know, it is true until today - Only I think my jokes are funny.

This long, long post is my mea culpa for not writing for so long ;)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Welcome to Hel

I've been warned all my life that I'd wind up in hell. Who knew it was such a beautiful place. The sand is a lovely white color. The water is clear. The weather changes from minute to minute, but the air is fresh and crisp. We had a good time.

It was our first trip with the girls to the Polish seaside. They really enjoyed the beach, the go-carts, and the waffles with whipped cream. There was a moment of disappointment when they realized that the water was cold. Then they discovered jellyfish in the water, and all was forgotten. The water is cold. The wind is cold. It rains almost every day. Be prepared. You can get sunburnt even on a cloudy day as my red legs can attest to. I was not prepared.

Here was our stanowisko. We didn't have the windbreakers (parawany) which are extremely popular on Polish beaches. I'm not sure if they are popular because they actually do break the wind or if they just appeal to Polish people's love of fencing themselves in or rather fencing others out. 

our humble homebase 

Daddy, why the windbreaker? There's no wind. ----But there are fellow Poles.

After five minutes on the beach, we were already on a ciocia-basis with our closest neighbor. She requested joining her parawan with our beach blanket to create a more private zone which she defended tooth and nail. Our kids began playing in the sand, and they were lost to us for most of the day.
cold, clear water

a jellyfish delicately returned to the water

one of many sandcastles
We let our kids run, jump, swim, sunbathe on the sand, pretty much do whatever they wanted. From some of our closest neighbors I observed a different philosophy of beachgoing. The philosophy of taking kids to beach and not letting them swim. There are two schools of thought apparently- one, it is too hot to swim - the other, it is too cold. The same ideology applies to eating ice cream as well. The next part of this philosophy involves taking frequent breaks with mother sitting on a beach towel, not the sand, never sit on the sand according to this philosophy. Additionally don't walk in the sand because you'll have sand in your shoes. This said to a child already on the beach. Said child stops walking, frozen in the conundrum presented to him by his mother. How can you take a kid to the beach and not let the kid swim I wondered as one mother tortured her child while all other kids were having fun. "Why did you even bring me here?" asks one 10 year old girl. I wanted to ask the same.

Our girls found some like-minded children with normal parents and spent the time being happy and having fun.

I was very happy to be on vacation. Not that I don't like my job. I love it. It is a very people-oriented job though, so it was nice to not have to talk to anyone or listen to anyone or correct anyone. I'm pretty sure Ciocia from the next parawan was trying to get some English lesson out of me for her grandson, but I just disappeared into my book.

Not everyone looked happy to be on vacation. People were literally running the path to the beach, not because they were excited to get to the sea, but because they were worried about finding a place. I wanted to scream - There's enough beach for everyone! Once they got to the beach they eyed up the other beach goers with unfriendly looks. When new holidaymakers arrived, they told them to move on, there's not enough room. People! We're on vacation. Smile at each other. Enjoy yourselves. Enjoy the (fleeting) sunshine.

One gentleman behind the next parawan was thought to be sleeping by his family but instead required immediate medical attention. The lifeguards did their Baywatch run down the beach, and then the EMT's arrived. Nothing like a possible death on the beach to snap people into perspective and to realize that it is an amazing thing to be alive, to be on vacation, to have our little piece of the good life no matter how small it is. The man was revived, and we saw him on the beach the next day. 

What's a trip to the beach without getting buried in the sand?

an evening on the beach and Rosie's solution to cold water

port side of Hel

sea side of Hel

that frisbee was an excellent source of fun for all of 3 zl

our attempt at a selfie

Lighthouse in Hel from afar

from a bit closer

evenings on the beach were my favorite - kisses from Tatuś

we dropped a lot of money on go-carts

the fokarium with seals

the beautiful beach

We stayed in a private apartment. It was located close to the Cypel and gave us easy access to the beach from both the port side of Hel and the sea side of Hel. The apartment was adorable in a kitchy kind of way. Enjoy.

I had to sleep under this and...

...under this.

a little nautical theme

with a pinch of religion 

and a smidgen of art

and a sprinkle of kistch

basically awesome, that's the owner in his younger years
We also visited some military stuff, bunkers and whatnot. I gave myself a good scare when I shined my flashlight in the prisoner's hole in a door in one of the bunkers and met the eyes of another tourist that I did not realize was already in there. A lot of the bunkers, etc. have been used as toilets by other tourists so visit at your own risk.

All of Hel is a kind of kitschy, touristy place. If you are expecting elegance, go somewhere else. If you are expecting families with kids, ice cream, fish, french fries, beach volleyball, windsurfing, kitesurfing, disco polo bars, military museums, fishing museums, boat rides, lighthouses, seals - then Hel is a good place for you. One thing we didn't find and we were looking for were t-shirts from Hel. We saw a lot of t-shirts such as - I don't need you, I have internet - Eat cupcakes for breakfast - This is my hangover t-shirt - but not even one Hel shirt. People in Hel must have a sense of humor, I mean the bus to Hel is #666. Do Polish people not buy t-shirts when they on vacation?

We're back home, and we miss it already. Now it's time to clean up all the sand we brought with us.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Independence and Bubbles

Here in Poland, our little Polish/American (or American/Polish if you wish) family celebrated July 4th czyli American Independence Day. It was a blast.

Truth be told, my sister is famous for her legendary 4th of July parties. Three years ago we happened to be in the States for her party, and we were not disappointed. I think the whole town was there. We stopped counting when we reached a hundred people. And the good. The best part of all was the hour-long firework show thanks to my brother-in-law's completed course and certification in firework handling (?) and my father's deep pockets. 

We finally found the flag that we purchased at Target last year. It was in a safe place that we couldn't remember. We also found a great fireworks store, but decided not to burn the whole village down and opted for sparklers only, so-called "zimny ognie" in Polish which translates to "cold fire".

Here's how our flag presented on the barn door.

Our romantic country netting fared much worse as it was windy and wasps kept getting trapped inside.

It found a new home.

I almost forgot that before the party we hit a local flea market and came out with these great party finds.

It was hot as hell yesterday so we did our best to stay cool. Some of us were chilling in the shade of the barn.

The rest of us enjoyed the low-tech fun of getting sprayed with the hose. That water's straight from the spigot in the basement, and it was c-o-l-d!


The loft in the barn is always an attraction for our little guests and for their parents a nice reminder of childhoods spent with grandparents. 

We also organized a scavenger hunt. It wasn't too complicated, but the kids' natural rivalry came out. They were running around despite the heat trying to be the first to complete their list. Here are two little ladies presenting their findings to the judge.

Our village had a small festival as well. There was no occasion. I suppose our local municipality got some money and had to use it up. Or I can pretend that it was in my honor. There were games and competitions for kids, some small rides, a water curtain, popcorn, cotton candy, etc. Our girls and their guests came home with arms full of prizes. Forgive the picture above, but this man fascinated me throughout the whole festival. I don't know if it was the no-shirt and suspenders combination or the fact that he had the suspenders hitched to his jeans in the back, but hitched to his underpants in the front. Additionally these suspenders were in no way doing their job of keeping his trousers up. He deserved a prize too.

We ended the day with sparklers which I didn't catch a picture of because I was having too much sparkler fun myself and also with bubbles using my own homemade bubble concoction which worked perfectly if I do say so myself.

All in all, it was a great day.

Here's my very imprecise recipe for bubble mix:

I mixed everything in a big jar of water. I added about a 1/2 cup good quality dishwashing liquid. Here in Europe "Fairy" which is "Dawn" in the States. Next I added a little 50 gram bottle of glycerin. I don't know if that is too little or too much. After that I added a teaspoon or less of baking powder. All of that was sufficient for making bubbles, but the bubbles didn't want to come off the wand, they weren't reflective, and they popped right away. Google to the rescue, I discovered I was missing a key ingredient - some kind of polymer to help the bubbles along. We found that polymer at the pharmacy in the form of Durex 2 in 1 lubricant similar to KY jelly. I added a couple of squirts only. After that the bubbles came right out of the wands, were big and colorful, and lasted a long time. My mix was a bit concentrated so I transferred it to a plastic bottle and then diluted individual portions with water. 

Give it a try!