Tag Archives: Poland

Watch out, Mesquits coming through!


I first visited Krakow on an Air Force mission with my good friend Bruce and loved this huge square.  Krakow’s main market square is the largest in Europe and was laid out in the mid 13th century.  It is the perfect place to get a squareside table and do some people watching.  

This is a rare way for us to turn the tables since our family gets its share of attention over here.  I’m not sure why we draw some attention; it might be the spectacle of us wheeling around our rolling duffels, or the fact that we have more than two kids,  or because we are often talking in loud American accents or because we are frequently energetically wielding Lego Star Wars figures or plastic horses.   It’s hard to tell.  

The square is so large that street musicians can set up at various parts of the square without infringing on each other’s territory.  The horse-drawn carriages roll by slowly with their tourist passengers.  The girls point out to me which horses have blue ribbons on and which have white or red.  I hadn’t noticed this crucial fact!

A cover band is playing at the cafe across from ours.  Every song seems to be an American classic rock tune from the 60s or 70s. 

A bit of a rainy evening can’t keep down this square.  Everyone just scrunches in under the umbrellas and pulls the heaters in closer. 


We took a short stroll around the square and enjoyed a little gelato.  I’m tempted to write “delicious gelato”, but I’ve decided that when you say “gelato” the word “delicious” is just redundant.  By the way, stracciatella gelato is the kind with the delicate chocolate flakes that crunch then melt in your mouth.  Wow. 

IMG_6871 IMG_6872

St Mary’s church dominates the square.  Thirteenth century Tartar raids destroyed the church and this one was rebuilt and consecrated in 1320.  The unusual towers of differing heights were completed in the 15th century.  The northern tower was raised to 80 meters high and made a watchtower for the city.  One of the city traditions to listen for is that the hourly bugle call breaks off mid-melody.  This is done in honor of the mythical trumpeter who was shot with an arrow in the neck in mid-call attempting to belatedly warn the city of attacking Mongols. 


Cloth Hall is the covered row of stalls that I remembered visiting when I came here back in 2005.  Unsurprisingly, it is still here. Intricately carved wooden plates and toys fill the walls of the booths.  I find the exact type of wooden fire truck with telescoping ladder that I brought back for the kids when they were babies. 


Lisa ends up talking to a lady manning a stall who seems glad to talk with an American.  She really wants to visit Las Vegas. 


We’ve enjoyed how everyone seems to know Texas.  Of course, from Hollywood and the movies, California is famous and so is New York.  People know about and love Orlando.  Several folks have told us they really want to visit Vegas.

The boys discover some weapons they cannot live without.  Doesn’t everyone need a sword and axe when they are traveling?  Once we kick them out of the crowd in the middle of the shops and over to a corner—a swashbuckling brother time erupts. 



We return to the square on another day to visit the Rynek underground museum, located directly beneath the market square. 

IMG_6896Accidentally discovered a few years back, the museum shows what life was like centuries ago here.  This picture shows the recent excavation.  Cemeteries dating back to the 11th century were discovered beneath the square.  People that were thought to be vampires were buried with their hands and feet bound and decapitated to keep them from returning to the world. 


Archaeologists found like items clustered together.  The artifacts were found beneath the stalls where ancient shopkeepers sold them.  Jewelry, toys (dice can be seen here), knives, blacksmith items such as horseshoes and their nails are each displayed. 



We’d been wanting to get on a family bike ride.  The zip bike places where you can jump on a bike after swiping your credit card are only set up for one bike per card.  And we discover that three of us have legs that are too short for these bikes.  Though that doesn’t stop some of us from sitting on them in the racks…  We find a few bike stores, but none have four bikes small enough for our tiny tribe.  Close to the square though we try another store. 


The smallest of our kids do not fit on most of their bikes either but they have tandem bikes and two smaller bikes.  We lower the seats all the way down and the kids’ tiptoes can juuuuuust touch the ground.  It’ll have to work. 

We maneuver the bikes out of the narrow alley of the store and point the bikes towards the square.  Then we load them up and try to balance the bikes carefully with the extra, fidgety weight in the back.  I have Will and Lisa takes turns with the girls in back.  We pedal slowly and enter the square scaring pigeons out of our way, and a few pedestrians. 

The bikes have bells on the handlebars to warn others and Lisa is hitting hers like a hamster drinking from his water bottle.  Will keeps leaning out from around me to see better.  I try to explain the danger of going over but every parent knows that’s only going to work to a limited degree.  If daddy can make it happen and there’s no crash then it must be working and I want to see ahead!  Can’t blame him.  The tandem bikes list from side to side and you have to start on the brakes earlier with all that extra mass on the bike.

We escape the square through an even more crowded, cobblestone street.  Then, we enter our goal of the path around the old, walled city.  The path has been put in where the moat used to be. 


Our bikes have more room here to wander on the path beneath the trees.  Sometimes it feels like I’m pedaling a sailboat that is leaning this way or that.  What a blast!  Simply gorgeous day and experience.  No major casualties.  

Back at the farmhouse later, the kids find their way often to the gazebo in the backyard next to the alpacas.  They sit in there, talking and playing together.  Later, we hear they have devised the KAII.  I may have to flee the NSA after revealing this but it is the Kids’ Association of Intelligence & Information.  Its primary purpose is hidden in great secrecy.  But it is clear that you have to have your card badge with you all at times.  If you lose it, you are not allowed into the gazebo for a week.  The card badge is torn piece of paper about 2 inches by 3 inches and decorated in pencil scribblings.  The cards have special facts on them such as birthdate, hobbies and favorite animals and their special symbol (squiggly lines and roman numerals).   Each person gets a title such as Admiral of the Black Fist, General of the Calvary,  Captain of the Commanding Legion.  Ana was also the Journalist and Caller of the Pegasus.   Big Brother somehow gets the title of Commander in Chief.  He says this is not a problem, even though it was self-appointed and that everyone’s equal.  These reassurances fall on deaf ears and a discussion breaks out.    

I later find several of their card badges laying around the house. 

In a matter of a day or so, it appears the KIAA has gone deep, deep underground—so deep that we don’t hear any more talk of it.  They are quite clandestine. 

By the way, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time researching this Schengen issue.  If you recall, this is the visa issue the immigration official had warned us about when we first landed in Germany.   The Schengen agreement includes 26 nations.  As an American, you can spend up to 90 days out of any 180 day rolling window in this area.  If you come and go from the Schengen countries, this can be challenging to plan your visits so there’s even visa calculator websites that have popped up. 

A few backpacking-type travel websites say that you can probably go over by a few days or weeks as long as you depart the Schengen area from countries such as Spain, Greece or France.  They are a bit more lax.  But in general, travelers are warned not to exceed the Schengen time.  Not only is it against the law but you can be deported, or forced to change flights, or be forced to get visas for any future European travel. 

One way to stay past the 90 days is to obtain a long-stay visa from a given country.  You can get one of these from France, Italy or Spain. Germany also has a short-term work visa.  You often have to prove that you have an income and/or enough assets to cover your stay.  They want to see back records and letters from employers amongst other pleasantries.  I called and emailed the US Embassy in London to get some clarification and advice but they were not too interested.   The real challenge with these long-term visas is that they are intended to be pursued months and months before you leave your home country.  You send in your passport to them.  Hmmm.  How’s that sound for a pretty dodgy idea when you’re already traveling? 

We had a breakthrough when research revealed that the US has a bilateral agreement from 1949 with France that predates the 1994 Schengen agreement.  I found a State Dept website which lists the US treaties in force. This treaty allows an American to spend 90 days out of 180 in France above and beyond any Schengen time (the original 90 out of 180 days).  This is true even though the Schengen area includes France—quite confusing.  I had to email a few French consulates to get a thorough answer to this confusing immigration question.   Poland also has a bilateral agreement with the US. 

It now seems we have a way ahead and can annoy the Europeans with more latitude!

The mouse and the Pope


One morning I head to the grocery store on a hunting and gathering trip for supplies.  I eke down the steep, curvy road/path and park at the other tiny grocery store in town.  After my typical pointing and gesticulating I decide to ask about coffee, or café or whatever works in Polish.  Coffee so far, has been understood just about everywhere.  In Polish, it’s kawa (“kah-vah”).   The store staff quickly grasped my impressively pathetic Polish skills and pointed me out to the youngest employee.  I tried to speak a little English with her and at least she understood “coffee”.  She understandably directed me to the coffee row in the store.  I made the international sign of “drinking a cup of coffee” with my arm and my hand grasping an imaginary cup of joe.  I know, I know, those are some powerful communication skills….   Then she understood and took me out of the store to point at a cafe across the street.  I thanked her and she seemed glad I didn’t perform an encore of the “drinking a cup of coffee” sign. 

The place across the street had a few tables outside with large umbrellas shouting the names of a local beer brand.  Hmmm.  I walked into the dimly lit, wooden bar and there were two tables full of locals drinking beer.  It must have been 5 o-clock somewhere on the Kamchatka peninsula but here it was about 9 in the morning. The lady proprietor got up and stepped behind the bar.  I repeated my lackluster performance requesting coffee that I’d premiered across the road at the grocery store.  She turned and bent and began to set out a saucer and cup.  I told her “no, thank you” which really didn’t slow her down much as she reached for a coffee maker.  I was trying to get across that I wanted a takeaway coffee.  I didn’t turn around but could sense that this strange American was providing some great morning entertainment for the tables behind me.  I finally put up my hands, gently shook off her kind efforts and walked out. 

I learned later that the word “no” can actually mean a kind of affirmative answer in Polish. So that made more sense why she didn’t really slow down when I told her no.   If anyone knows this not to be true, please just laugh at me since I rather enjoy that version of the story.  I do know that “yes” is “tak” in Polish. 

At one point in Poland, Lisa actually mooed to explain she wanted to buy “beef”!  I love it, and it worked.

One night in our Ekocentrum place I was startled awake in my hemp pajamas. 


Okay, not really, but the Ekocentrum just seemed so deliciously granola crunchy.  Camille was sitting on the foot of my single bed and Lisa was sitting up in her narrow bed.  Both had wide eyes.  Camille said, “Daddy, there’s a mouse.” 

Now, we’d discovered a few telltale droppings and nibbled food corners on the food on our little counter a few days before.  We’d done the normal cleanup and moved all the food into the cabinet above that counter and closed the cabinet door.  I wondered if we’d left food out on the counter again.  I snuck in to the kitchen like a ninja who’s just woken up and really isn’t that quiet.  I might have been tiptoeing but I’m sure I must have looked ferocious at one in the morning.  I was trailed by Lisa and Camille.  I didn’t need to try and be quiet because our visitor was loud.  He was certainly up in the cabinet alright and was having a ball with our brand-new spaghetti. 

I slowly moved other food items out of the way until I glimpsed his pink tail.  I grabbed a glass and was actually able to trap him in it.  Ah ha, I was like a great white hunter after all!  I decided to be smarter than the mouse and just slide something narrow under the glass and his little mouse feet so I could get him outside.  I was going to be the trapper and the humane “letter-goer” all in one fell swoop!  But without any strong, flat material at my disposal I resorted to a saucer plate. I slid the glass slowly off the shelf and tried to slide the saucer under him.  For some reason my wily friend decided he wasn’t really on board with my plan and dropped his tail and half his body through the tiny gap between the shelf and the rounded saucer.  I had him caught but didn’t really want to crush him so I had to let him drop onto the counter. 

Now we were into a hasty cat-and-mouse game (I know, that was a bad one) behind and around a basket on the counter.  The girls screeched and ran back for the beds.  He thought better of it and skittered down off the counter and into the tiny gap between the cabinet and the wall.  I could not get him out of there, try as I might. 



I shined my iPhone flashlight and could see him in that narrow gap grinning at me.  I think my hunter credentials were just about gone at this point.  I couldn’t really reach him in the deep, narrow crevice and he wouldn’t listen to logic.  It seemed we were at an impasse.  Is there an app for mouse fighting?

Camille woke up Ana to tell her about the mouse.  I could hear Ana sleepily respond, “Is he cute?”  And then she fell right back asleep before Camille could answer.


But I couldn’t really leave him there since he would just east our food and wake us all up again.  Unfortunately for him tI found a long, narrow piece of molding board.  I could reach him and it was over quickly.   I even put him on the ladies’ rigid, pink cardboard bag from the tasty Demel bakery in Vienna so I could carry him out.  I don’t think the ladies were overly impressed by that one either.  But they did seem quite relieved he was gone and I was ready to get back to sleep. 


 On Sunday morning from our open window we could hear church bells and voices lifted in praise.  

Our little town of Stryszow is not far from the slightly larger, but-still-small town of Wadowice.  This is the hometown of Pope John Paul II.  And he is loved here.  I always felt he was loved in America but he is the hometown hero here.  He not only rose to be Pope but did so via the bishop position at nearby Krakow.  He was also instrumental in fighting communism.  John Paul II gently prodded governments to speak and act against tyranny.  He encouraged Poles to stick together and to not be afraid.  His moral leadership in the Roman Catholic Church lent strong support for Lech Walesa’s—and the Gdansk shipbuilders trade union—Solidarity movement of the 1980s.  Imagine what its must have been like to be a Pole in the time of Soviet domination and see this man from your country, uncowed, standing on the world stage as a force against those who kept your nation down.  There is a museum about Karol Wojtyla (his pre-papal name) in Wadowice and another in Krakow.  You can see his primary school backpack and some of the clothes he wore.  His statues and likeness are all over this part of Poland, such as the one in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. 




During our late honeymoon to Italy we visited Rome.  On the day, we visited the Vatican we stood beneath the papal apartment—with thousands of others—as he pronounced a blessing.  And shortly after, Lisa became pregnant with triplets!  So we love him too. 

Driving through these rural roads to get from Stryszow to Wadowice and Krakow and other places we keep coming by the same billboard.  An enormous cake of some type filled with cream that makes our mouths water as we drive by fumbling with our GPS.  The sign has the name Piekarnia on it and some other Polish words we don’t recognize. 

One evening after a long day of sightseeing, we search for the store called Piekarnia to get that yummy dessert.  Finally, after driving all around Waldawice without seeing it, Lisa runs in to a grocery store hoping to find directions.  Here’s what happened in her own words:

“At this point, I had learned to say hello and thank you, in Polish.  I browsed the store to find an employee who didn’t look too occupied with other people.  With a map in my hand, I immediately employed “hello!” and then, said “pie carnia?” and shoved the map in front of her.  She looked at me and walked me to the fresh bread section of the grocery store.  

“No, no!” I said “Pie carnia” and then, I drew a picture of the dessert (that unfortunately looked a bit like a rectangle) on the map and wrote out pie carnia.  She realized an English speaker would contribute to our interchange and signals that she is going to get someone else.  She goes in the back and comes back out and signals me to wait.  I wait and wait.  I ask another employee who doesn’t know.  Finally an employee comes out from the back.  “The English speaker!” I think.  However, this woman also doesn’t speak English, the other employee just thought that the other employee might be more help.  She offers nothing.  We are at a standstill.  We had kind of promised the kids dessert.  What now?  Finally, a young couple who had entered the store to shop overhears my persistent questions while they are checking out.  The wife elbows the husband and he comes over to help me.  Even though I had misspelled Piekarnia on my map, he explains that “they” are all closed at this hour.  He then gives me detailed directions to the closest one.  I’m starting to understand that the word means bakery.  I feign interest in the directions since we are thirty minutes from home, but appreciate the new understanding and employ my Polish “thank you.”  I was basically asking someone from Seattle where “the” coffee shop was, or someone from New Jersey where “the” Dunkin Donuts was or someone from Vegas where “the” casino was.  Oops.  I head over to the frozen section to find a dessert for the kids waiting in the car.”

We learn to love our town’s little piekarnia and can hardly say the word enough (“PEE-kar-nee-uh”.  I tend to visit it in the morning to pick up bread and few small pastries to sample.  Of course, I can’t even get close to pronouncing their names but they are a few cheap bites of heaven.   The locals don’t even bother to actually pull into parking places, they just pull their cars alongside and run in.  


[this is where they keep the deliciousness]


[chilling in the Piekarnia parking lot]

Our Eastern Europe podcast also introduced us to the Polish love of a minuscule car called the Fiat Polska.  They were made during the old Soviet days.  There was no competition from Western cars back then.  The cars were tiny and inefficient but they were about the only show in town.  People would order these little cars and would wait years for theirs to be delivered. 

One day, after saving up for years a man goes to the Fiat place and places his order for his Polska.  He is told to not be hasty, that it would show up in about 4 years. 

The man asks, “When in four years?”. 

The salesman puts him off, “Sometime in the fall.”

“But when in the fall?  What month?” prods the man.

“I’m not sure, should be October,” blithely answers the salesman.

“Yes, but can you tell me what week in October?” asks the man growing anxious.

“I don’t know, probably the third week,” says the salesman.

“Okay, but when in that week?” says the man who will not go away.

“Ah, let’s say on Thursday,” remarks the salesman.

“Whew, good,” sighs the man, “the plumber’s coming earlier that week.”

We heard this joke as a panel of Easter Europeans attempted to explain the communist days to an American audience. 

And then, our next-door neighbor has one parked outside his house. 


It’s been three months since my last checkup.  I’ve just completed my bloodwork and the results will be sent to my specialist in the US.  I’ll admit to feeling a bit unsettled as the day approaches.   It is not a conscious feeling but almost a subtle dissonant tone in my mind and in my heart.  It must be the war between fear and faith.  Calling it by name and facing it head-on always seems to clarify the situation and drives me quickly to prayer. 

The needle in the vein has become almost a friend.  When I felt like a pin cushion a year ago, I decided that I would forever think of each needle as just one more way that I am fighting the myeloma.  I try to hold that thought in my mind.  I am quite the connoisseur of phlebotomist skill and am quick to point out “nice stick!” after the metal is in.  I am grateful for modern medicine and all that it has done for me, and more importantly, for my family.  Bits of me are off at some lab right now.  I ask for your prayers for a continued clean bill of health.   Come what may, I know we rest in God’s hands. 


The Catastrophe

Poland was hilarious.  We had some missteps: a mouse in the house, a middle-of-the-night knight, a mooing mother, and a great search for dessert.  (Brent will fill you in.)  But, the grand gem of the Poland trip was also the darkest.

Visiting Auschwitz was profoundly important for me for this trip.  I don’t know if I simply wanted to honor the dead, if I wanted to try to fathom how this could possibly happen, or perhaps to ask, “what would I have done?”



[Arbeit macht frei – “Work makes you free”]

Anticipating an emotional day, we chose to visit early in order to avoid the mandatory tour guide.  With the roughly one hour drive and exactly four kids and approximately two hot plates, a tea kettle, and one electrical outlet, this “early” proved almost too ambitious, but we arrived before the cutoff time by ten minutes.  On our own, we hoped to regulate the rate of exposure all of us, especially the kids, had to various parts of the camp.  Good call.




Seeing the camp, one of at least 20,000 such camps, loudly shouts that Hitler did not do this alone.  In fact, besides the obvious guards, thousands of people at many levels of responsibility orchestrated these camps.  Railcar operators, chemical suppliers, building contractors, accountants, food providers, postal workers and goldsmiths are among the types of citizens who would have helped the mission of the camp with a degree of knowledge.  Some estimates place the number of people involved with executing the Holocaust at substantially over 100,000.  The Auschwitz museum has direct records of 8400 guards who worked at Auschwitz.



While traveling this fall, cities have candidly displayed their previous deep root of anti-semitism, pre-Hitler.  In addition, Darwinian style Eugenics was incredibly prevalent.  We saw a sign at the Museum of London from the time between the World Wars that explained how improper breeding has led to terrible suffering and disabilities, and cited the number of blind and deaf in London at the time.  This was an advertising sign, not an editorial or an obscure website, but a sign. 

The powerful current for this mass elimination of those perceived unwanted flowed across Europe.  Those who wanted to fight it, did so at the risk of their selves.  The camp has meticulous records of neighbors or others who were also killed for giving a Jew a piece of bread.  Auschwitz has a special cell for a priest who resisted the Nazis.  By resisting, you agree to join your fate with theirs.



Also, displayed are the first reports of the camps in the US newspapers.  We read a clip from the LA Times.  Somehow, the tragedy seems just as difficult to grasp today, despite seeing it. 



According to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, six million Jews were killed by the Nazi government at work camps, extermination camps, or through other state sponsored methods.  Six million is approximately two-thirds of the European Jewish population at the time and over one-third of the World Jewish population at that time.  Today, the Jewish population still is not back to it’s pre-war levels.  And, the European Jewish population is a little over two million.




[Father Kolbe who volunteered to take the place of another man in a  starvation cell]

Furthermore, the German government killed approximately 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens (sometimes at camps), over 20,000 Roma people, around 200,000 disable people, thousands of Jehovah’s Witness, and an unknown number of homosexual men.



[From the Dutch display–Anne Frank, second from the left, on her 10th birthday, Amsterdam, 12 June 1939.  She went to a different camp.]


[The first commandant of Auschwitz was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal.  He was hanged on these gallows at Auschwitz in 1947.]

The camp is divided into two camps:  Auschwitz and Birkenau.  The SS forces “outgrew” Auschwitz and needed an additional camp that was more efficient.  We completed our Auschwitz tour and ate a picnic lunch at a park outside the camp.  Right next to us, a group of Isreali high school students munched on their box lunches after their tour.  Oh how we wanted to talk with them!  They were busy chatting with each other, and we thought better of peppering a person their age with questions.


Visiting Birkenau (Auschwitz II) required a little drive of a couple of miles. 



[The chimneys remain after each barrack was torched by the fleeing Nazis attempting to hide their atrocities.]

We tried to be brief as we looked at some somber lodging facilities,




[stones worn smooth by people sitting on the bricks for heat]

as well as the train stop at the selection platform where those in charge decided who would work and who would go straight to the chambers.  At least 75% were deemed ready for immediate execution. 






The chamber ruins are still there.  Now, a memorial to the Shoah, the Hebrew word for catastrophe, beautifully interrupts the killing places.




We returned to the parking lot a while later to find one of the doors of the SUV wide open.  Gasp.  Quickly we jogged back to see if our friends’ car was intact and if by any chance our electronic collection of iPads and camera equipment remained.  Thank God, nothing had vanished and the car was fine.  The battery wasn’t even dead.  A solid bit of gratitude at the end of a day of solemnity.

The day was emotional for all of us.  Contemplating that level of evil begs for explanation and leaves a mark on any tender heart.  As parents, we asked others who’d been, thought about it and debated taking the kids at all.  In hindsight, we are glad we showed this place to the kids but of course we don’t know.  It wasn’t what they were most keen to journal about.  We kept the museum visits to a light-hearted standard for several days afterwards.  That evening we took the family out for a nice dinner in the hometown of Pope John Paul II, a town on the route to our farm cottage.  When we ask them about our visit it doesn’t seem to have traumatized them. 


Secretly, I do hope it leaves a mark, and I think that’s why I wanted to see it with my own eyes.  I hope it reminds me to be brave.  I hope the children remember to be kind.  I hope we all are alert.  Where is this happening, now?  Who do we not value?  Who is expendable?  Where are we so blinded by culture that we can’t see terrible injustice?  What can we do now?



Boil water before drinking


We checked out of the lovely two-bathroom Budapest apartment and backed the car gently out of the tight underground parking spot.  Each time we vacate a place, we put down one seat in the back and carefully load the Tetris of bags into their choreographed slots.  Someone had parked quite close on our right and before I can notice a small person has climbed in and started building a nest at their seat.  As this peep opens the door, it just touches our neighbor’s paint and leaves a small mark.  My fault for not foreseeing this and moving the vehicle right away to another spot for loading.  We make amends as best we can and keep moving forward.

As we load, the negotiations build to a crescendo between the children over seat location.  Will it be in the middle with a view of the road or one of the sides with access to the door cupholder?  Or in the back wedged beside the bags but all by yourself?

Where are the UN peacekeepers when you need them?

After a few patterns of these discussions emerge, we decide on a rotating order for seat-picking.    Peace.

At least, the plastic just-in-case bags are prepositioned at their seats!  And we are all set for our road trip to Poland.

Many of our drives have been hampered by construction-narrowed lanes choking travel times and slowed travel days so I understand where they’re coming from.  We blaze north through rural Slovakia.  At one point, we climb through a mountain town with a ski resort one step up from the mom and pop ones we used to frequent in Montana.  Small towns slide by in the windshield.  The fronts of many houses are built right up to within yards of the rural “highway”.  Older women with their hair in a wrap walk back from the grocery store loaded down with their purchases.

We cross the border into Poland and see the same small towns.   It is some kind of holiday here and people are out on bikes and some on horses.  The girls are enthralled with the horses.

The shallow, green valleys cupping the road are dotted with houses and lazy smoke plumes loitering around chimneys.  Are they heating their homes with wood or coal?  The weather is still warm.  With the lack of billboards or the bright lights of business, we seem to have driven into a time machine set on one hundred years ago.


We cannot seem to find an actual highway.  We are a long way off from any autobahn now.  What the roads don’t have in speed they further challenge us by frost-heaved pavement and potholes in the smallest towns.

A podcast on Easter European countries had singled out Poland for its religiosity and its friendly people.  When the communists ruled behind the Iron Curtain church attendance was a kind of protest vote as well as spiritual worship.  The Soviets did not dare mess with the church in Poland because they knew the Poles would not stand for it.  In other nations in the Soviet sphere, church membership met with declines as the communist masters discouraged and directly opposed the church.  We encounter the friendly Poles as soon as we cross the border.  At one rest stop, the lady manning the bathrooms is very friendly and smiley.  We’ve already become accustomed to having to pay someone to get into the rest stop bathrooms.  Of course, they call them toilets here or WC’s.  When I’ve slipped and asked for a restroom I am met with a quizzical look.

In our continual quest for funny items you come across in travel, we spot a girl at the same rest stop taking a break outside their tour bus.  Her shirt screams in huge letters, “My Boyfriend is out of town.”

The car’s GPS software is slightly outdated but has served us very well.  We could easily get a SIM card for each nation to ensure data on the move but we’ve found the GPS sufficient.  As the sun goes down, the GPS leads us down progressively smaller roads.  Then onto a gravel road.  Then a dirt road.  Are we still headed the right direction?  Is Poland really this rural?  There’s a house right there so maybe this is the right path?  There are no lights on in the house, so maybe they’re not home?  It is dark out here.  The dirt road and its foliage lead us down a tighter “path” with huge, mucky carveouts undertire. Discretion is the better part of valor, or something like that.  Time to back out of here and call our host.

With directions from him, we meet up thirty minutes later in the “downtown” of Stryszów (“Shtree-show-ve”).  He tells us that everyone’s GPS takes them astray on the way in.  The only person who has made it without a rendezvous was using an actual zoomed-in map.  A-ha, the limits of technology.

He also tells us that the dirt road of darkness we’d so thoroughly enjoyed used to lead drivers to the house.  Now, the roads are deserted in that area because work crews are digging and progressively flooding the area to construct a massive lake.  Nice.  Lisa is convinced we were just about to drive right into the middle of the world’s deepest lake.  I try to tell her that I had it all under control.  I’m pretty sure she was convinced…

Downtown is a road with a petrol station at either end, two tiny grocery stores and a few bars.  A sign points up a hill to something called an “Ekocentrum” and is your only clue there’s a road hiding amongst the bushes.  He leads us up that one-lane road masquerading as a two-lane.  Several tight turns, a railroad crossing, and a terrified cat crossing later and we turn off our engine to join the inky silence of our farm house.  Every unloading noise sounds ear-splittingly loud out here.

Our host is a friendly young man in his 20s with great English.  He lives and works a few towns over and his business requires him to deal in English nearly every day.  The Ekocentrum is his mother’s vision and you sense this rental apartment is his business opportunity.  He is eager to get us bedded down for the night and to see that we are comfortable.

The downstairs room’s walls proudly display pictures of people planting and harvesting.  Prince Charles once visited this Ekocentrum.  The upstairs holds a narrow bed for each person.

Our host quickly shows us around the new digs.  The half-the-size-of-a-beer-fridge fridge is unplugged and shares an outlet with the two-burner hot plate and the electric tea pot.  Someone will be odd man out at this outlet at meal prep times.  Small rugs cover the industrial, rough-carpeted floors.

The bathroom has been renovated to include a shower the boys term as the “Tron” shower.  The room still holds an ancient low stone wall.  There are many signs impressing on us the importance of properly recycling our food waste and about 17 small, recycling cans.  This place was very inexpensive to book but I start trying to mentally visualize the pictures from the website.

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[the view from our bedroom and the narrow road leading up to the house]

It is not till he leaves that we notice the sign saying “Boil water before drinking.”

Now, what exactly does that mean?  Is it no water on the toothbrush á la  camping?  Can you wash dishes in the water?  If you open your mouth in the shower will you explode?  As Americans, a blackout is uncomfortable after a time but if the water supply goes off for a second we stop singing campfire songs around those candles…

We are so used to the good life.  I unconsciously begin to write my mental Better Business Bureau complaint.  How could he not have told us about the water?  Is there a global BBB, and can I write directly to the International Criminal Court at The Hague?

But once we do a quick internet search we learn that people often do not drink the water in this part of Poland.  One reason might be that the Soviets punished the independent free-thinkers of the Krakow area by building a heavy industrial site nearby.  The area became polluted with their production of goods to feed the centrally-planned economy.  If that is what you’ve grown up in, does it occur to you to notify people over a website that you need to boil the water?  I’m not sure but I reluctantly mentally holster my global BBB complaint…

Travel is just what I need to help me examine and adjust my own expectations.  Of course, we are ridiculously blessed and yet I lose sight of that fact all the time.  What a blessing to be out here in the quiet.  God has surely given me more than I deserve.

The next day I drive down the steep hill to the small town’s grocery store.  I manage to embarrass myself by asking for deli meat in English and German and still not be understood.  Pointing and holding up fingers saves the day again.  The workers are kind and patient with me.  Not a whole lot of English going on out here.  We have learned if you want to maximize your chances of finding an English speaker find someone young.  If you grew up behind the Iron Curtain, you probably didn’t earn a lot of points with the communists by harboring a secret love for the West.

The grocery store is notable for a couple of reasons.  We’ve recently been in Germany so I’m shocked that the deli does not hold 87 different kinds of sausages.  And the shelves behind the counter grab my eye.  Shelves of hard liquor run nearly floor to ceiling and there are at least four rows of more kinds of vodka than I’ve ever seen.

The kids wander out and meet the alpacas and we are privileged to meet our downstairs neighbors.  They are the kindest couple and quite young.  She is Macedonian and among other things, helps care for the animals.  He works in a nearby town doing IT and is Dutch.  They graciously show us around the Ekocentrum next to our farmhouse.


The Ekocentrum is an ecological center for sustainable living and a kind of display case for inexpensive housing built from sod.  The sod is used to efficiently insulate the thick walls.  Overall, the house looks like any other small farm house.  Just one of the amazing things is that these places can be constructed for about $5,000.

The couple have lived here for a few years.  I ask if she is from Skopje and she laughs good-naturedly at how I pronounce it.  She says the Americans always say “Skop-gee” when it is actually “Skop-yuh”.

They help the kids feed the alpacas.  We corner chickens and help get them into their pen.  The kids love the sheep and ducks.  They teach us to identify and avoid the stinging nettles.  We see the thoughtful method of natural water filtration via cascading planter boxes.  We’d booked this place to be on a farm and get a different slice of life from the city and we are seeing it.








They confirm for us, the smoke we witness rising from homes is from the coal stoves of people’s kitchens.


They even take us on a short walk to pick berries and get a view of the hillside.



They intentionally live at a slower pace in a smaller place.  They are warm, generous with their time and hearts and a joy to be around.  The evening light melts away over the bushes as we stand out in the road outside the farm house.   The stars are already out.  We finally say our good nights and head to our different floors of the same house.




We sleep well and wake in the morning to the crows of a rooster.


Wieliczka Salt Mine, by Will






The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland is a breathtaking place.  Its 324 meter deep shaft is the home of 95% pure salt.  It is so long that it is world heritage site.


In reality, we marched down some stairs that felt like we were in an abyss.  Partly because, if you look down (which I did many times) there was nothing but black.  Finally, we arrived at the bottom.  The tour guide proclaimed that the salt was called rock salt because it was 95% pure salt.  The other 5% are rocks like limestone.  The next passage was quite different, the walls were covered with white crystals.  The guide said that this was pure salt crystal.




The next ten chambers were a church and statues of people like Copernicus and their patron saint.  Why is Copernicus in there you ask?  Well, he visited there ten years after the mine opened. 


In one other chamber, there was a statue of the king and a fascinating display of how they would carry the rock salt out of the mine.  It was a pully that you got to pull (if you were lucky, which I was).  When I pulled the wood, the rope on the other end would pull the salt up.  If I pulled it the other way, it would go speedily down the hall to the other side so that transporting the salt out would be faster and more efficient. 




In the next chamber, there were more white crystals.  But this time the tour guide said you could lick the salt.  I was delighted. The salt was extremely delicious.  But to my misfortune, I couldn’t have any more because Mom caught me licking the wall.  Because Luke didn’t think he had enough, when we got to the next room that had some souvenir shops, Luke went over and bought a necklace made from salt and started licking.  And licking.  And licking.  And licking. 


In the next room there were some dummies carrying a stick with fake fire on it.  The tour guide explained that this type of gas would build up and then blow up.  So, they had this torch that would burn the gas and then they would have safer mining. 

The next room was full of stairs. 


“Once,” the tour guide remarked, “an Italian said that it looked like the entrance to hell!”  The miners would have these big sacks over their shoulders containing rock salt and march up and down these stairs.  Thankfully, we didn’t have backpacks as we marched downstairs with caution. 





We entered a cavern.  It was massive, full of rusty equipment and rock salt dwarves.  The miners carved them because they believed that at the end of the day the dwarves would finish all the undone work that the miners didn’t do.  Moving on, we entered a large chapel.  It was humongous.  It had many paintings carved into the wall like an excellent carving of the last supper.  Another vivid one, about when Herod was killing all the babies in search for Jesus, was across the way.  And, a few others carvings in low relief adorned the walls.  The alter had a big sculpture of Mary and Jesus, and their patron saint.  The guide told us it was one out of forty-two chapels in the mines. 








Then, we entered a small cave.  It was rather dark and it had a pool in the middle.  They say that you used to get on a boat and sail down it until World War I when seven Austrian soldiers were trapped under the boat and died.  Why they were in there, I don’t know.  Then we went to a room that was kind of small with a small chapel and an elevator.  From there, we went to the surface and I bought a huge thing of salt.  Then, we left. 



How to spice up your next museum visit

1. Find the nearest informational plaque and stand right in front of it.  If your siblings can still almost read it, lean on the plaque.


2.   Step in front of the interactive touchscreen.  Instead of clicking on the “next” screen, drag your finger across the screen and enjoy the cloud that forms behind your finger.  Start doing faster and faster loops.  Keep doing this until the museum guard asks where your parents are.


3.  Sit on the low brick wall placed in front of the preserved section of the underground city wall with your coffee.  Let the same guard who spoke to your child come tell you that you cannot sit on the perfect-height-for-sitting wall.


4.  Bounce the coin in your hoodie pocket over and over and surprisingly violently, for fun.  Accidentally bounce it out of your pocket and let it roll across the suspended walkway you are standing on.  Watch as it rolls off the walkway and into the ancient city excavation below.  Try to help your dad apologize to the guard in a foreign language.  Don’t be surprised if the guard tells you that you are not going to get your coin back.


5.  When the museum seems to drag on FOREVER and ever and you are hungry for a snack just drape yourself across your parents.  Any bag or backpack they are carrying is actually designed to also be a handhold.   Transfer as much of your weight off of your feet and onto their bag.            Alternative method–Link your hands up around their arm or shoulder.  Hang like a sloth on a tree branch.


6.  Get really excited about the arms and armor exhibits.  Ignore any suspicious stares from museum guards.  Pick your weapons and suits of armor since you are actually living in a Ranger’s Apprentice book.  Try to figure out which one looks like a saxe knife.  Point at the suits of armor over the railing but neglect to notice the laser beam you are breaking.  Pretend you don’t notice the audio alarm that is going off (again).  Do this three times.  Try not to make eye contact with approaching museum guards.


7.  Max perform the audio guide.  Make sure you know how to turn it on and off, rapidly.  Then see if you can break your record.  Continue till it powers down and won’t come back on.  Then, give it to your parents.


8.  If any of the material seems a bit slow paced, get as far ahead of your family as you can.  Go several rooms ahead in the museum.  Consider it a challenge.


9.  As you tour the underground salt mine, really get into enjoying the salt.  Lick your hand, drag it along the mine wall for yards and yards then lick it again.  Any wooden beams that are painted white should be similarly enjoyed.  Do this as long as possible or until your parents notice.


10.  When the guided tour is in the relatively small confines of the king’s bedchamber, strike.  Employ a silent, but deadly, attack from your GI system.  Take note of others’ faces to see why anyone might be avoiding that area of the room.  Prepare your defense ahead of any possible recognition contingency–“whoever smelt it, dealt it.”