Monday, March 23, 2009

Time Will Tell (careful with secrets)

How do you draw the line between the present and the future? At what point must you stop living day by day and begin looking forward, begin realizing that your dreams were indeed created for a reason, and in those hopes, strive towards a better tomorrow? Or, when must we reconnect our thoughts to the present moment, calling them back from the warm beaches of next year’s vacation. At what point does “thinking ahead” become a means of lessening the present. It’s already been two months, two months have passed and three more will soon be created and yet I can’t stop thinking about the future. I can almost hear the “tick, tock, tick tock” of a giant clock counting the days I have left. But left for what? Until I leave Poland? Yes, until I leave Poland, but even more than that, beyond the date stamped on my plane ticket (that doesn’t yet exist). I will, eventually, return to America, happily embrace all that I have missed and for a moment the insistent ticking will fade into the background, choked by the sounds of anticipated laughter, transformed to a note that rides on sirens of police cars as they speed through a city I’d like to call home, or perhaps the ticking will drown in the sound of the joyful bark of my dog as she greets her unforgotten friend, or be lost in the cracks of the record player as it reverberates John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. But slowly, the importance of time will once again surface as I flip through photos of months that have past, and the familiar ticking will once again enter the present and insist I follow him to the future. I will, eventually, graduate from school, my last three months as a college student being spent studying hard, but playing even harder. My college years will be summed up with indescribable moments (indescribable actual describes), unexplainable happiness, a library of photos, and a lifetime of memories. Four years of my life will exist not only within my head, but shows itself in everything I do, for it has been these past four years that have created the person I meet when I look in the mirror. But the future that exists (or doesn’t exist) beyond this time is as unpredictable as Poland’s weather. Again, I find myself only able to see so far, only able to assume what’s to come and I wonder if this, in many ways, is dampening the present. It’s so easy to preach the importance of the moment, to live in tune with each sound, smell, taste, and touch of the world around you, not to create the moment but rather let the moment create you. I admire those who have mastered this mindset, who are able to move smoothly from day to day with the understanding that the future is only what we make of the present, and in this moment, they exist. But the question of “What’s next” is something I cannot escape, and I continue to question if this way of thinking is beneficial or potentially damaging. Again, we come back to the question of the line and where it’s drawn between the present and the future. I was reminded of this today, as I am every time I shop for groceries (a minor instance, but reasonably significant). The basic foods you would find in my basket at Polo-Mart consist of: bread, yogurt, cheese, milk, cereal, eggs, and honey, with this I am able to eat for the next 3-4 days. When in checkout I notice the amount of food that others have chosen to buy that day, and in most cases it’s enough food for one day, perhaps dinner for later that night. Perhaps its not enough to draw conclusions (they may buy small to keep things fresh), but through this and other instances, it seems that Polish society runs more on a day to day basis, living each day at a time. On one hand, I agree with my way of thinking…buy more groceries, make less trips, save more time. While on the other hand, I agree with the other way of thinking as well, buy what you need, when you need it, deal with the future when it comes. I believe we must find a comfortable middle, to be able to appreciate and live in the moment while at the same time making plans and setting goals for the future. The only struggle is finding this place. In a world full of dichotomies, life only holds two decisions, the right or wrong, and in choosing you are inevitably left with the feeling of “what if”. But if we are able to find a safe stability somewhere in the middle, between the black and white, this or that, then perhaps we will learn to live comfortably between the present and future, between here and there, now and later. A place where the “tick tock, tick tock” no longer exists.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Vegetarian's Encounter with Meat

Yes, as you may have assumed from the title, my 6 year vegetarian streak has come to an end, well, more like a temporary pause. I’ll give you a few moments to re-read what I have just written, let out a gasp of horror, or for some (many)- a yelp of excitement…….Yes, it is indeed the truth, I had finally eaten a whole meal with meat being the main course (picture shown is not a meat dish). Let me explain myself. My decision to become vegetarian began the summer of 2003, after falling victim to horrific propaganda delivered by the infamous animal activist group PETA. Upon seeing photo after photo of half slaughtered cattle hanging by rusty hooks and pigs being beaten over the head with cement blocks, I made the decision to stop eating meat…cold turkey (pun intended). Following my initial exposure to the realities of meat production, I began looking deeper into this area of American consumerism only to discover that this rabbit-hole only gets more disturbing. Not only is our decision to eat meat at the animals expense, but it also comes with the cost of numerous environmental factors, dozens of health risks, and innumerable societal consequences. There’s an entire web of oppression hung over the unquestionable packaged meat sitting in the coolers at the local Wal-Mart. And to ignore these truths only means to perpetuate the problem. Besides the practical reasons to adopt such a lifestyle, there also developed more latent reasons in support of my decision, these being related to morality, simplicity, and a deeper appreciation for life. There’s a quote that states: “If we have the ability to evoke change, we then have a responsibility to evoke change.” Sometimes, ignorance indeed is bliss, but in this case, it’s not so easy to forget- to “un-learn” what you have learned. And so, for six years I have chosen the vegetable medley over the pork sirloin cutlet. Until now.
Poland continues to fascinate me. It’s an unexplainable difference, Poland from the United States. I could certainly tell of examples, of everyday differences, applicable differences. For example, their appreciation for the environment seems to be stronger than the average American. Many stores encourage individuals to bring their own bags, and most all do, they understand the concept of “plastic bags = no decomposition”. It’s appropriate to hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right, and it’s common for the men to buy the groceries AND cook dinner. The television isn’t what brings people together, it’s actual human interactions (imagine that), and before eating its common to hear the polish word “Smacznego”, meaning “Bon App├ętit” in Italian, or perhaps “Enjoy” in English. This brings us to the topic of food, don’t worry, my tasty encounter with meat is coming soon.
There’s a beautiful authenticity in the Polish food, one that must be experienced, tasted, to be understood. There’s a freshness that’s not so easy to find in America, and an originality that’s quite unique. The bread is baked fresh daily at the multiple bakeries scattered around towns, there’s tiny shops dedicated solely to baking and preparing polish ‘cakes’ or ‘sweets’ that range anywhere from fruit-filled pastries, to chocolate pies. The apples are not uniformly shaped or preserved with a waxy gloss, instead they vary in size and texture, many still with their leaves and bruises. The eggs are mostly brown, and it’s normal to find little pieces of chicken feathers in the cartons. Milk and juice is served in 1 liter boxes, neither needing to be refrigerated until opening. And the meat, well, surprisingly, it’s just meat, nothing else. Locally grown, organic, antibiotic and steroid free- meat. When I explain my reasons for choosing to be a vegetarian to the Poles, to them, a questionable piece of meat is unimaginable, this just doesn’t happen. I agreed to give it a try, but with no guarantees.
They started me off slowly, letting me try the salami they put on a Zapiekanki – to us it would be a form of pizza bread (made with ketchup on top instead of tomato sauce). Then, the next step, a whole meal. I met up with my friend, Cegla (pronounced Segwa), after he returned from the store with ingredients for dinner. Out of his backpack he pulled vegetables, 5 pounds of potatoes, and a bag of meat- looks like I was about to eat chicken. For the next hour we prepared dinner for four, I helped by peeling the potatoes and mashing them to perfection. Cegla worked on preparing the chicken, which he breaded and fried, and steamed the vegetables with flour and water. Before we ate, one of his roommates gave me a cup of traditional beet soup called “barszcz”. It was a tasty soup, one that I would never have thought to try in America. Then it was time to eat. Cutting the chicken I wondered if this was a good idea.. ”What does this mean?” “Is this…right?” But after the first bite, It defiantly was right. I don’t ever remember chicken tasting so good. After eating everything on my plate, I felt content, satisfied, happy. I don’t know if it was actually the quality of the meat that made it so good as much as it was the meaning, the action of preparing it, the time put into it. I really appreciated what I was eating, and I appreciated the dedication and willingness of the people I met to introduce me to their way of life. I appreciated the farmer who got up early every morning to feed his animals. I appreciated the time and energy it took to deliver the food. I appreciated the simple exchange from farmer to store owner, (no middle man). And I appreciated the fact that I was sharing a meal with friends from half way around the world. Will I continue to eat meat while in Poland? I’m not sure, but I do know that my American way of thinking is slowly changing and I’m excited to see in what direction it chooses to go. Until then, I’ll continue my usual vegetarian options, with a few exceptions… as they say in Poland, ““Smacznego!”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

To Be an American- One Month Later

Today is March 11, 2009 meaning I’ve been in Opole for exactly one month. It definitely doesn’t feel like one month, but then, I’m not sure how it does feel. Everything is still very new: new roads to walk down, new foods to try, new people to meet, new words to learn, but then again I feel like I’ve been gone for months and have started a whole new life. It’s a scary feeling, at times, knowing that you’re growing up without the ones you love by your side experiencing a new life with you. But I’ve found a kind of family here, people that I’ve learned to trust and count on, one’s that help me stay grounded in this whirlwind of Poland. To them, I’m just the goofy American girl. And “American” is defiantly what I am, and I’m slowly becoming okay with that. Prior to Poland, I’ve always held a kind of negative view of America, tired of hearing the depressing facts and statistics: “ an increasing number of people will face homelessness in 2009” …“ as the economic crisis deepens….:” “Scientists predict that Global Warming will reach an all-time high…” “Troops are being deployed…” “the number of civilian casualties…” “New found cure for depression and obesity!” I was sick of it all and wanted nothing more than to leave. Someone once said that a fish will never know it lives in water until it’s outside of its tank. I needed to experience life outside of the American society. I needed to see the world from outside the fishbowl. And a feeling of irony struck me as I was flying out of New York on my way to Poland. Here I was, having done everything in my power to escape, only to be leaving a place where many can only dream to be. For years, people have struggled and given up everything to have the opportunity to touch American soil, to live the American Dream…America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. And as I was flying away from this “Mecca” I only hoped that one day I would be proud to be an American. But I never would have thought that this feeling of American nostalgia would hit so soon. Time is a powerful thing, and sometimes all that is needed is a little time. Time to think, reflect, heal, grow, learn, and what better place to just “BE” than Poland, where time seems to stand still. I’m learning a lot, and not so much inside the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, my classes are great, but the most important learning is coming through each day, through each new person I met, through each new conversation. And more and more I’m learning that being “American” isn’t so bad after all. I’ve given up trying to “fit in”. I can’t do it. I can’t be someone I’m not, even though I would really like to look as good as the Polish girls in their high heels, it’s just not “me”. And that “me” is American, blue jeans, baseball cap and all. I eat cereal and rarely use a knife to cut my food. I like walking slowly and enjoy the feeling of the cobblestone roads under my tennis shoes. I may not be familiar with many Russian composers but I can make one great peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I may not have that many customs and traditions to share but I can talk about my killer birthday parties (Lord of the Rings and Survivor themed :) ). I may not know 4 different languages, but will try my hardest to talk to you anyway ( I can understand body language). I may not be able to make homemade periogies, but I do know how to make an amazing batch of Rice Krispie Treats. I may not be 100% anything, but I’m 100% everything- Italian, Irish, Native American, Russian, (not really sure…). The point is that I’m learning more and more to love the person I am, and to embrace the person I’m becoming. Life is too beautiful to let petty things as fear and insecurities get the best of you, and with that perspective, I’ll be able to smile and continue with my polish aerobics classes even though I’m the only girl who’s doing everything backwards because I can’t understand the instructor… :) What can I say, I’m an American…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Growing, Learning, Living

Breathing in deeply the clean mountain air, my head is slowly filling with a new perspective, one of fresh ideas. The mountain air is slowly filling in the tiny cracks where doubt and fear silently hid. Life is too diverse, unpredictable, and rich to restrict with rules and limits, the earth is round and refuses to be placed in a box, so why must we continue to put up walls?

I’ve successfully made it through two weeks of classes here at Opole University, and to my surprise, things are falling nicely into place (or out of place here in Poland) and all is coming together (or apart??). I’m not gonna lie, the first week here was a bit tough. There was a lot of different feelings, emotions, fears, and plenty of doubts. I began second guessing the decision to come, to postpone a graduation that I would have taken place in less than 2 months, to leave behind a place of comfort, security, and certainty. Was it the right decision? Or had I selfishly taken things into my own hands, but yet is my life not my own to plan? But the more time I spend here, the more certain I am of my decision, and I am indeed in a place where I’m supposed to be. I’ve gotten to know my roommate better, and she and I have already had great times together. She had told me that she was not expecting to have so much fun this semester, that she hadn’t planned on anything that we had done, and my response: “Well, then you sure hadn’t planned on having an American as your roommate sister, this semester will be unlike any other!” I crave adventure, and nothing makes me happier than having people to experience it with, even if I have to kick them out of their comfort zone and drag them down the rabbit hole of spontaneity. I came to Poland alone, you can at least join me in a night of karaoke.
My classes have gotten better, the class that was taught entirely in Polish had switched to mostly English thanks to the arrival of two other foreign exchange students from Turkey, although I’m pretty sure the students in that class hate me because I was the main reason for the language switch. (sorry, my polish language lessons haven’t begun yet). My other class, Religion in International Relations is great. Its silly because the professor uses me as somewhat of an assistant instructor, always checking her pronunciation with me or her method of explanation. The students in the class are also great, and find it fascinating to have class with a native speaker. My third class, Psychology of Social Communication is by far my favorite. It’s taught by a priest, Dr. Rev. Darius Krok. He, as well, is more than welcoming and excited about my presence. He has been very helpful and kind, and I find myself looking forward to this class because of the comfort that it offers, the warm familiarity of a deep faith can be seen in his eyes. Since I’ve been in Poland, its been very hard to find a comfortable place for spirituality. This is strange because Poland is 98% Catholic and religion can be seen in many aspects of daily life, yet, there remains a void between the religion and the relationship, the connection seems to be…missing. Maybe its been the transition from a culture where Christianity is abundant, pouring out of churches, t.v programs, movies, radio, and plastered as a logo on fashionable t-shirts. Here, its not so prevelant and the main literature on spirituality can be found in the writings by and about Pope John Paul the second, (what a great man), and books by Paulo Coelho (which is fine with me as he is a great writer). Yet, I have felt a ‘Greater” closeness in bits and pieces, in moments that seem to stand still and linger, in moments when certain things line up, creating a beautiful picture that you cant help but smile at and pray that the moment never fades. But, they always do, and your left with wondering when the next encounter will be and in what form it will take. The priest and I are going to arrange a time to meet every week, just to talk. I know I’ll be looking forward to those days.
I’m growing closer to the friends i have made. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for them, I’d be lost. They have helped me so much, and continue to serve as an opportunity for me to be myself, as ridiculous as that is at times. When I’m with them, I am happy. They’ve gotten so used to me being a part of their group that I find them translating less and less, forgetting that I’m unable to understand. Until they see my wide-eyed look and quickly apologize and proceed to translate. I don’t mind not understanding all the time, when they laugh, unintentionally I do as well, and in that sense, happiness can indeed be contagious. This past Friday, they took me skiing with them in the Czech Republic. It was such an amazing experience I wish I could’ve captured in all to share with others who are unable to be here. The mountains that border Poland and the Czech are breathtaking, and as we drove into them, it seemed as if we entered into another time. Like a scene out of Narnia, we spent the day surrounded by ice covered pines and blue crystal snow. It was a beautiful day and worth every ache and pain we felt the next morning, even my black and blue knee couldn’t scream loud enough for me to pay it any attention.
I’m enjoying spending time in the coffee shops. There is one that I find to be my favorite and frequent it quite often. It has to do with the first impression. The second night I was in Opole, I was exploring the old town as it was getting dark and stumbled upon a lit sign inviting me in for a cup of coffee. I was thrilled to have found a coffee shop and hoped it would be one to return to. Upon entering, I was covered with that warm comfortable smell of fresh ground coffee and kindly greeted by the soft sound of Iron and Wine. This was my shop, and so it’s been. It serves as a great escape, a place I can come and be alone with my thoughts. When I get frustrated with my inability to understand the conversations around me, I can always count on the understanding of my own thoughts, at least they speak English, and after a cup of coffee, nothing can hold back their insistent chatter.