Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Julia attends mass, slays dragon

Well, at least the first part is true. I attended a Catholic service… in Polish! And it was hot and humid enough in Kraków to make me feel like I needed to slay the dragon that was breathing on me (until the hail storm, at least). And I’m not just pulling this dragon stuff out of the far corners of my imagination. There is a legend in Kraków of a dragon that wreaked havoc by constantly devouring people’s sheep. Then a clever person tricked the dragon into eating a sheep stuffed with gunpowder, and the dragon subsequently exploded. (I may be fudging some of the details of this legend, but isn’t that part of the beauty of legends?) I visited the dragon’s purported lair, which also used to house a Kraków pub. Now it just scares small children.

The Dragon's Den is in a cave beneath Wawel (pronounced Vavel), the beloved castle of Kraków.

Oh, but back to mass. It was nice, though I only made out a few words here and there and I had to stand the whole time because the place was packed and I gave up my seat to an older woman (it seemed like the right thing to do, considering I was in a church). The church itself was pretty impressive – big, high ceilings, interesting decorations & architecture on the inside (can’t say what style exactly… Gothic?). But I only managed to get a picture of the church from the outside:

My favorite part of Kraków, however, is the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. Despite its depressing history it’s become a hip and stylish part of town that is paying plenty of attention to its past with museums, art, monuments and even this menorah fence:

But I only saved 2 days for Kraków, perhaps not enough, so I might return later this summer. We’ll see. For now I’m ready to devour Prague. I'll have to do this alone for one more day since Alicia missed her flight out of DC and so is arriving tomorrow, not today. I'm not blogging about this to bring shame to Alicia, but rather to prove that I'm not the only one who misses planes (though I may have been notorious for doing this in the past).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Adventures in Family History, Part 2
By train, by bus, by foot, by thumb…

On Friday morning I woke up at 5:30 AM to catch my 7 AM train from Warsaw to Toruń. Toruń is the closest major city to the village of Wąpielsk, where the Kotwickis are from. As it turns out, Torun is also a beautiful town. I didn’t have much time to enjoy Toruń when I arrived around 10 AM, though, because my main task was to try to get to Wąpielsk. The young woman at the Tourist Information Center (TIC) was extremely helpful in helping me find a way to Wąpielsk (though she had never heard of the village herself – bad sign? Hmmm…). The trip would take about 1.5-2 hours by bus and I could leave at 2 or 4 PM, but it appeared that there was no way I could catch a bus back to Toruń that night. Since there were no listed accomodations in Wąpielsk, the TIC woman found a hotel for me in a town near Wąpielsk (the town is Golub-Dobrzyn). And the hotel was in a castle!

I spent some time walking around Toruń until it started raining and I decided to find a restaurant. The restaurant was quite crowded and I ended up sharing a table with a Polish woman and her granddaughter. I had my first pseudo-full conversation in Polish, which was quite difficult, though I managed to at least find out that she was from Toruń and that she had a colleague from Wąpielsk, but had never been there herself (she also made sure I wasn’t planning to stay there, since she didn’t think there was much in the town – another bad sign? Hmmm…). In any case, they were very nice to try to speak with me!

At 2 I headed to Wąpielsk. About 2 hours later, I was the last one on the bus and the driver dropped me off at a bus stop on an intersection of two roads and not much else. I managed to confirm with him that another bus should be able to take me back to Golub-Dobrzyn (to the castle!) around 6:20 PM. Another bus would also come by at 9:30 PM, but after a quick glance at the so-called “village” of Wąpielsk, I was pretty sure I wanted to leave for the castle earlier, rather than later.

As best as I can tell, Wąpielsk is an intersection with 3 stores, a post office, some kind of government buiding, and, ummm…. that’s all. Surrounding the intersection are farms, mostly, plus one small Soviet-style apartment building, and a few more modern-looking houses. I walked a bit in each direction from the intersection, looking for signs of life. I found some life - people and cows. The people seemed to being doing one of two things – going to one of the stores by foot, bike or car for beer (or bread), or else standing in doorways chatting. Some other people were working on their farms, but it was difficult to get good pictures and not look like a spy. Here’s a picture of the "downtown":

You can see more of the wonders of Wąpielsk in the photo album. It’s basically just a farming area, and I don’t think there is much else. I suppose that if our young ancestors, the Kotwicki children, didn’t inherit a farm, they probably couldn’t have done much in this town. Thus they set off to live with relatives in the new world.

By 6 PM I was very ready to go to the castle. I went to the bus stop early to wait, but got a bit bored waiting so I took out my iPod and computer to charge it and load some more songs. Then, at 6:05 – 15 minutes earlier than the time I had gotten from the TIC woman – the bus came. I saw it, was in shock for a split second, then waved to him and started packing my things as quickly as possible to hop on the bus. But he drove away. I raced after him, dragging my half-packed things behind me, but he did not stop. Then I wandered back to the bus stop in a daze and sat in shock. Maybe it was the wrong bus? Why had it come so early? What if I missed my bus? What would I do?

Then maybe 5 minutes later, before I even managed finish packing up my things, I saw another bus. It was coming from a different direction, so I stood up and squinted to read the sign for where it was going. It was going to Golub-Dobrzyń, to the castle! I finished packing my things very quickly and just as I started to run over to catch the bus, it had already turned the corner and was gone. That’s right. I missed TWO buses to the castle. Mind you, it was still only about 6:10/6:15, so, I thought, maybe neither of those buses were right and there will be another bus at 6:20, like I had written down. I waited quite alertly, all packed and everything (!) at the intersection, ready to jump on ANY bus that came from ANY direction. But by 6:30 I knew that those had been my last chances. I had missed my bus(es).

The thought of waiting there three more hours to potentially miss another bus was enough to make me want to run all the way to the castle. Suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling of being totally and completely trapped. I was in this tiny village that wasn’t even really a village, but an intersection. There was not even one restaurant, where I could sit for while, if I waited.

So I had one more option - to hitchhike. Why not? These people all seemed pretty nice. Maybe somewhat reserved, but nice. So I began walking in the direction toward Golub-Dobrzyń and got ready to try hitchhiking.

But no cars were coming in the direction I was walking. I had the sense that I was re-performing the exodus of our ancestors 100 years ago. I know, a bit dramatic, but I was overwhelmed with the need to get out of that place. That must be why I found this sign to be so symbolic:

I walked for an hour and 10 cars passed going in my direction. Not one stopped. One even had a taxi sign on it. Couldn’t the taxi have picked up one more desperate passenger? My shoes were not the right choice for the trek, sort of like business casual short boots (my only covered shoes for this trip). I was determined to throw them away if I ever made it to my destination. Fortunately I had left my suitcase in a locker in Warsaw, which I would pick up on my way to Krakow the next day, and so only had a backpack and purse. Based on what I knew from the trip out there I tried to calculate how far Golub-Dobrzyń was from Wąpielsk in my head. At the very best I estimated 10 miles, which is walkable, but certainly no fun.

Then I approached a fork in the road, and before the fork was a man in front of a house. He was closing the gate in front of the house and I noticed he had a car parked outside of the gate. In my wretched Polish I asked him how far it was to Golub-Dobrzyń. He said maybe 20 km (12 miles) more. Remember, I had already been walking for an hour. I was so disappointed, I think it must have been obvious. Then I asked if he maybe was headed in that direction. He said something about the bus, and I tried to explain that it came earlier than expected and so I missed it. After a few more exchanges, he agreed to drive me about halfway there - to another bus stop where I could try to catch a different bus. I was so relieved to have any help that I quickly agreed.

This extremely nice man was named Andrzej. He ended up driving me all the way to the castle. I think he decided to drive me the whole way after I explained that I went to Wąpielsk because my great grandmother was born there a century ago. He is from Wąpielsk himself (but now lives in the neighboring village). He said that there are no longer any Kotwickis in Wąpielsk, but the name sounded familiar to him – people long ago had the name, but they had likely all moved since then, or else there were only women left with the name and they would have lost their name when they married.

So I failed at hitchhiking, but I did get a ride with a stranger to the castle. I know, I know. This was unsafe. I shouldn’t have tried to hitchhike and I shouldn’t have begged a stranger for a ride. But don’t you see that I was desperate? And it was really interesting to meet and speak with someone local, especially someone from Wąpielsk.

Both the castle and town of Golub were beautiful. Here’s the castle where I slept:

And a here's the view of the town from the lookout area of the castle:

I was also relieved because the guy at the reception desk spoke some English, so I could finally stop pretending to speak Polish (until I went to town to buy myself a much deserved beer).

Here’s to Poland!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in Family History, Part 1
Background Research

I grew up believing a legend about my Polish ancestors. The story was that my great grandparents (parents of my maternal grandmother) were both Polish orphans who met on the boat coming over to America. Only a bit of this is true. My uncle (well, my mom’s cousin) Craig La Clair’s research tells quite a different story. Both great grandparents were Polish, but they did not immigrate to the US on the same boat. Josephine Chudy née Kotwicki immigrated at the turn of the 20th century, and Frank Chudy arrived later, in 1906. They met and married in Michigan.

Warning: the rest of this blog entry is long-ish & contains detailed information about our Polish family history, thus it may be boring to non-relatives. See below for a more user-friendly blog on Warsaw, and check back soon for the most exciting blog to date!

Craig La Clair compiled a book reporting his research and I used this book as the basis for my own research last week. His book contains much more information about my great grandmother’s family, the Kotwickis, than it does about my great grandfather, so I decided to try to find out more about the Kotwickis and maybe visit the area where they came from.

At first I was stumped, because Craig wrote that the Kotwickis were from a small town in Poland named "Wocupielsk." However, a Google search for "Wocupielsk" returned zero results. I fared no better when trying to decipher the town name from the original documents he had in his book, so I turned to and found the 1901 boat manifest shown below. This manifest shows that Franciszek (Frank) Kotwicki, age 17, and Józefa (Josephine) Kotwicki, age 9, emigrated from Poland (part of the Russian Empire at that time) to the US via Antwerp, Belgium on the ship “Southwark.” (Note that this Frank is Josephine’s older brother, not her husband-to-be.) On this manifest, the Kotwickis home town is listed as “Wompielsk,” Poland. Wompielsk is probably also what is written on the paperwork in Craig’s book, but it’s just difficult to decipher the handwriting.

I’m fairly certain these are the right people, because the manifest also reports that they are were immigrating to Alpena, Michigan to meet up with their older brother John Kotwicki (which conforms to other information in Craig’s book). These names are compatible with our family members and we also know that they ended up, at least temporarily, in Alpena.

Wompielsk is not a town in Poland, but another Google search revealed that this is how the town Wąpielsk was written on other immigration documents (probably because the spelling Wompielsk is close to the pronunciation of Wąpielsk). This town is not located exactly where Craig placed “Wocupielsk” on the map in his book, but it is not too far from it. The closest major town to Wąpielsk is Toruń (supposedly where Copernicus was born!). Here's a map showing Toruń with respect to Warsaw:

View Larger Map

Looking back at the documents in Craig’s book, it seems clear that Wąpielsk is the right town because, first of all, one of these documents lists the county (or “powiat” in Polish) as “Rupin,” which corresponds pretty closely to Rypin county where the town of Wąpielsk is located. Second of all, Craig reports that Josephine’s aunt (her mother’s sister) Teresa Hoppe née Kotwicki married her husband in Toruń and her husband was from the nearby town of Bydgoszcz (which is just further evidence that Kowickis resided in this general area).

The boat manifest is incongruous with some of the information Craig received. He wrote that Josephine left Poland immediately upon her mother’s death in 1895 when she was 6 years old. However, Josephine was not 6 years old in 1895 since she was born in 1891 (or 1892). Thus she would have been only 3 or 4 years old when her mother died. What appears to have happened is that Josephine did not leave Poland immediately after her mother’s death, but rather stayed in Poland and emigrated later, in 1901, with her 17-year old brother Frank.

Evidence that Josephine was born in 1891 comes from her age on the boat manifest (9 years old in 1901) and also from her age in the 1930 US Census form below (39 years old). (On this census form she reports immigrating to the US in 1899, not 1901, but it is likely that she is estimating this date, having been only 9 years old when she immigrated.)

I decided to try and visit the village of Wąpielsk to see where our ancestors are from. I'll report the real adventure in the next blog.

Also, just for fun, here’s a pronunciation guide to how names of family members & towns are pronounced (roughly) in Polish:

Warszawa ≈ Var + SHAH + vah
Toruń ≈ TOE + rune (the “n” is soft like the first “n” of onion)
Wąpielsk ≈ VAWM + pyelsk (the ą is nasalized, like some French vowels)
Chudy ≈ WHO + dih (dih like in dip)
Kotwicki ≈ Ko + TVI + tski (or maybe Ko + TVI + chki)
Franciszek ≈ Fran + CHI + shek (CHI like in chicken; became “Frank” in the US)
Józefa ≈ You + ZEF + uh (became “Josephine” in the US)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pretending to speak Polish

I thought I'd forgotten everything from the Polish class I took about 5 years ago, but I’ve managed to recall enough to get by in basic speaking situations (and as it turns out, slightly more complicated situations too - but you’ll have to wait until my next blog for the hitchhiking story). At first I just used English in Warsaw, but after I noticed that the people at the front desk of my hotel were rather unfriendly when I spoke English, I decided to speak Polish as much as possible. Once I started speaking Polish to them, they suddenly became quite friendly and helpful. Only a few people switched to English when I started in Polish (and these few were very fluent English speakers). I get the sense that Poles in Warsaw don’t like it when foreigners have the upper hand – linguistically or otherwise – in their own country. This seems logical enough (even without taking their history into account). And so I pretend to speak Polish. It ends up being a hybrid language of Polish, Russian and Czech, and probably sounds something like this:

Me: “Want me one coffee please.”
Pole: “Small or large?”
Me: “Don’t understand”
Pole: “Small or large?”
Me: “Oh. Uh yes one small.”
Pole: “Black or with milk?”
Me: “Milk yes. Please thank you.”
Pole: “Here you go.”

Warsaw has turned out to be a great place. I don’t really understand why it’s got a bad rap or why a lot of backpackers/travelers skip it. Sure it was largely destroyed in WWII (I’ll spare you the details of German & Soviet occupation, the Warsaw uprising, bombing of the city, etc. etc.), but the old city center was rebuilt so closely to its original state that UNESCO declared it a world heritage site (despite usually reserving this honor for sites that are mostly original). Outside the old city center is a vast, sprawling metropolis with wide streets full of people, big buildings (sometimes soviet-style), and spacious parks.

This is the biggest and most difficult to avoid building in the city:

It is an example of Socialist Realist architecture (Stalin era). View from the top of this building:

Despite its size, Warsaw is easy to navigate using buses, trams, and the metro. I automatically feel affection towards any city that has an efficient, easy to use, and comprehensive public transport system, and Warsaw’s system won me over quickly.

I’ve also been pleased with Polish food here, though the following universal principle applies: eat where locals eat. I had the most delicious cabbage & mushroom pierogies EVER at a deli where I was the only foreigner, but then had only so-so pierogies the next day at a more touristy place. And the traditional Polish foods here are similar to Polish food at home – pierogies, pączki (filled donuts), potatoes, meat cutlets, soup, etc.

I could go on and on about Warsaw, but I’ll edit myself and let pictures say the rest.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Saved by 5 złoty

Złoty is the currency of Poland, of which I had none when I arrived in Warsaw this morning on the overnight bus from Vilnius. This was a problem because I could not find a single functioning ATM at the bus station and I needed money to purchase another bus ticket to get into the center of Warsaw (since I was deposited at the bus station outside of the center of town). Then I realized that I did in fact have złoty - a 5 złote coin to be exact (this is about $2). A backpacker I met in Riga had given it to me since she didn't need it and knew I was headed to Poland. This coin was enough for me to purchase a bus ticket to another train/bus station in the center of town. It was around 6 AM and I can't check into my hostel until 2 PM, so I stored my suitcase in a locker and headed to the city to explore... for 8 hours. I like Warsaw so far. It reminds me a bit of Moscow - large, sprawling, with big buildings and wide streets. Pictures and more on the city to come. For now, here's a map of Poland.

p.s. the ł in złoty is pronounced like w in English; Polish w sounds like our v.

I haven't written much about Vilnius because I'm not sure what to say (maybe it's a city that's easier to show in pictures than describe in words). I really wanted to like the city, but didn't find it to be a particularly welcoming place. It was practically impossible to get service at restaurants and bars in English, and only slightly easier when speaking Russian. In all fairness, I only spent about three days there and did mostly touristy things, so perhaps I didn't get a real sense of the place. The Vilnius KGB museum did make an impression on me. It chronicles not only the devastation by the Nazis (who killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in Lithuania), but also the subsequent 50-year occupation by the Soviet Union. During Soviet occupation, many Lithuanians died either as part of resistance movements or when deported to labor camps in Siberia. Sorry about all this depressing stuff, but it's very relevant to the Baltics & Eastern Europe and a bit difficult to avoid.

As far as links to their more distant past, I found only a bit more (possible) evidence of pagan traditions alive today. The girls in the picture were at some sort of ceremony or festival near a church in the Old Town wearing elaborate, clearly hand-made dresses. I couldn't understand what was going on, but guess that it was somehow related to the upcoming summer solstice. So no, the persisting pagan traditions in Lithuania don't include anything scary like animal sacrifice, but rather include the celebration of old holidays, dancing, and probably singing too. I don't think that any of this is seen as incompatible with their religion - Catholicism.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“Pagan and proud of it”

So says my travel guide (Let’s Go Eastern Europe) about the history of Lithuania. And I agree that the country seems to embrace its pagan past, which I’ve deduced primarily from the Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė, and also because they were the last European country to convert to Christianity. The Hill of Witches is a fairly long nature path decorated with carved wooden statues of witches, goblins, dragons, etc. representing different aspects of Lithuanian folklore. It’s a neat exhibit, particularly popular among Lithuanians on Midsummer’s Night/summer solstice (also a relic of their pagan past). One thing missing from the statues is any sort of identification of the figures or tales they came from, but I found a book in English on Lithuanian folklore to enlighten myself. One statue did have a name – Pasakorius, so I’ll read up on him first. I liked the sculptures so much I took a lot of pictures. Here’s Pasakorius:

My hostel was in Klaipėda, but I spent most of my time across the Curonian Lagoon in Juodkrantė. This area is along the Baltic coast of Lithuania. Though Lithuania has much shorter coastline than Latvia, it’s quite a unique place. In particular it’s characterized by the Curonian Spit (yes, I did mean to write “Spit”!) - a long thin peninsula of sorts that runs parallel to the Lithuanian coast and is full of natural wonders like sand dunes, as well as man-made wonders like the Hill of Witches and modern art statues (see the Klaipėda & Juodkrantė album for a picture of stone “sheep”). It’s easier to see how this is all laid out on a map, so here’s a map of Lithuania (Klaipėda is marked, but Juodkrantė across the lagoon is not):

Now I’m in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which as you can see from the map is inland from Klaipėda, quite close to Belarus. So far my only news from Vilnius is that I managed to do laundry and eat. But I consider doing laundry an accomplishment. And with the terrible service I got at dinner, perhaps eating was an accomplishment too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Trapped in Liepāja

I'm trapped in Liepāja. Where is Liepāja? It's on the western coast of Latvia, on the Baltic sea (check the map I posted below). We (me and my new German friend Verena, who I met in Riga) came here for a night and tried to leave this morning, but it turns out that the only bus to our next destination (Klaipėda, Lithuania - also on the sea) is at 7:40 PM. So I'm not actually trapped here, but here longer than planned.

The town is all right. The real attraction, though, is the beach. A beautiful white sand beach:

(Beach fully equipped with older men in speedos.)

The town might be more interesting on the weekend when tourists arrive and there is more activity at the bars and clubs. But on Monday night the town was quite empty as you can see from third story of the The Rock - the bar/restaurant where we had dinner:

Have I found anything else that makes Latvia unique? Well, this seems to be the most expensive country of the Baltics. I think I already said that its Russian population is larger than in Estonia or Lithuania, so it's quite useful to know Russian here. Once I get to Lithuania (if I EVER get to Lithuania) I'll have more points for comparison.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

3 days in Riga

Czechs apparently cannot distinguish Latvia from Lithuania. Tsk tsk. But can we really blame them? I mean, do I really know the difference between the two? I've decided to make one of my travel tasks finding out some easy and memorable ways to distinguish Estonia's southern Baltic sisters from one another. Estonia doesn't seem to have this problem, probably because it doesn't start with an "L" and the Estonian language is quite different from Latvian and Lithuanian (which are both Baltic languages). Here's a map of Latvia for reference:

The capital city Riga is one thing that is unique to Latvia. It's the biggest city in the Baltics and also has a reputation as a party city. I've been in Riga since Thursday night, so almost 3 days. My reaction was lukewarm at first, but I'm warming up to the city. Perhaps my initially lukewarm reception was in part because I transitioned to true backpacker mode here, that is, staying in a hostel with 8-10 beds in a room and absolutely NO privacy. But these are good places to meet other travelers and be social.

Among the interesting things here in Riga is one of the largest indoor markets in Europe. The roof of the building was recycled from old Zeppelin hangars from western Latvia. It's HUGE!

A lot more Russians live here than in Estonia, and there seems to be less national pride than in Estonia. They chronicle their complicated history of Soviet and German occupation in the Occupation Museum behind this very Soviet-looking statue:

And yes, the night life. It's actually a bit hard to not go out. The popular beer is Cēsu (the diacritic over the"e" means that you pronounce the vowel longer). There is also a local liquor called balzams, which is very strong and sort of tastes like cough syrup. I'm sticking with the Cēsu:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pärnu in full color

As promised, I uploaded my pictures of Pärnu.

Blogging on the bus to Riga

How cool is it that I have WiFi on the bus from Pärnu to Riga?! I deliberately chose this bus because I read that it is the luxury line with internet (+outlets to plug in your computer) and coffee machines. So I blog on the bus with coffee in hand. There are no pictures for this blog, but not because I couldn't find an adapter in Pärnu (I found one!) but because I left the cord to upload pictures in my suitcase, which is currently stowed under the bus. I decided to do a quick blog anyway, because - how cool is it to blog on a bus?!?! (Can you tell that I think this is really cool?) You may or may not have noticed that all my travel in Estonia has been by bus, not by train. It seems that travel here, and perhaps all over the Baltics is better and more convenient by bus.

I'm leaving Pärnu, which is Estonia's vacation/resort town. A tourist brochure declared it "Estonia's summer capital," since Estonians flock to its beaches and spas during summer months. Well, it's still early for vacationers, so the town was a bit quiet yesterday and today, but still nice. This is one place, I must say, where I was glad to speak Russian. On more than a couple of occasions I encountered people who spoke very little or no English and it certainly made it easier to speak Russian. I guess that contrary to what I wrote before, it seems that not everyone here speaks Estonian, Russian and English fluently, but rather the older generations speak Russian (they were required to take it for many years in school) but not necessarily English, and most of the younger people speak English, but not necessarily Russian. There is also a sizable population of Russians (in Tallinn, mostly) who often don't speak Estonian that fluently (since there are Russian schools, they don't really have to learn it).

I took a lot of pictures in Pärnu, so stay tuned for odd sculptures, Estonian food, the beach, the market, and buildings that are not pink.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Saunas & Mud Baths

All work and no play makes for a dull trip. Not that I don't like linguistics talks, but it is nice to be done with the conference (and post-conference lectures I've been occupied with for the last two days). My chosen play remedy includes Estonian saunas and mud baths. I already went to the sauna during our post-conference excursion in the countryside of Tartu county. After museums, churches and a picnic, the sauna was very relaxing (as well as a nice escape from mosquitos!) It was pretty much like a Russian banya, which is just a steamy, hot room where you can beat yourself with birch branches if you so desire. I so desired. It wasn't even that weird to share the sauna with a few linguistics professors. Thankfully, though, we split into groups of females & males.

Here's me after the sauna in front of Lake Peipus (very big lake between Estonia & Russia - shown on map below):

Part 2 of R&R Estonian style involves mud baths in the town Pärnu (check map again). I leave tomorrow morning for my afternoon appointment at the Tervis spa, where I plan to be covered in the healing mud of Ermistu Lake. I'll let you know how it goes, but there will be no pictures because: 1) why would you want pictures? and 2) my camera battery is dead and I haven't been able to find an adapter for my charger here (I thought it would be easy for some reason...). Hopefully pictures will return in Latvia!