Monthly Archives: September 2012

Baltic crossing

   The Swedish train dropped me in Ystad about 7:30 . That’s 19:30 Euro time . My ferry was leaving at 22:30 . The ferry terminal is a short walk from the train station . The center of old town Ystad , as I discovered , is a short walk from the station , too . It’s convenient  to have everything a short walk from everything else .

   Most of the shops had closed in this part of Ystad by then . There was a cappuchino place that I had my eyes on as I explored the streets . I passed a couple of elegant bars . I became very aware of being so close , again , to Poland and inexpensive Polish beer . I had no need to sip an arm-and-a-leg-priced beer in one of these Swedish joints just to pass time . I decided to head for the cappuchino place , but it closed before I got there .

   The ferry terminal has a large waiting room and the restroom doesn’t have one of those money boxes that seem to be all over Sweden that keep the restroom locked until you put five crowns in the slot . Even in the restaurants in Sweden they had these locked restrooms. Five crowns is about eighty cents , I guess . I’m not moving to any country that charges five crowns to use a public restroom . Is it just me ? In the ferry terminal one can pee for free . In Sweden . A little bit of Sweden gone freaky !

   The waiting room began filling with students . Some school trip , I think . There were three or four adults with the group of twittering teens . We were all ready after an hour or so waiting and finally the gate opened . The teens swarmed and hurried and crowded in  and I took my place behind them. Everyone was thrilled to be finally boarding .

  When I reached the official at the entry gate  she shook her head and said  ” Denmark ” . I straightened out my boarding pass and looked at it . ”  This goes to Denmark ,” she said .

” I don’t want to go to Denmark ,” I said .

” You must go outside , ” she said , ” and follow the bicycle path “. 

  So I went outside and followed the bike path as it curved around the terminal , crossed the train tracks , wove between stone walls and chain link fences . I was suddenly aware of the time . It would be a shame now to miss the ferry by minutes , to watch it steam out of port without me . But I made it aboard . I was one of the last to board. The Polish truck drivers had already had enough time aboard to get unimpeachably drunk . There was a security guy , a large muscular man with a  boxer’s face , who was already barking commands and breaking up potential fights .

   I went looking for the seats to sleep the night . The Swedish ferry on the trip over had airline seats to sleep on . I had two of them to stretch out over . Some people had four of them to lie on . I had been warned by the clerk in Szczecin who had sold me the tickets that the trip back would be a Polish ferry and that I should pay for a cabin . I thought that I would take my chances , ” You can buy a cabin after you board ,” she said . I was surprised , now , to find that there were no seats to sleep on for the night . None .  Oh , there were plush , comfortable chairs in the bars and in the disco lounge ; but those places closed at 2:00 . There was the cafeteria left , with its hard plastic chairs .

  So I went to Reception and asked for a cabin . I was told to sign the waiting list and come back in an hour . There was a half-page of names ahead of me . So I waited an hour . I hadn’t seen the two or three other pages of waiting list ahead of mine  . The girls at Reception called names . Like lottery winners men walked up from the gathered crowd . I waited , amazed that so many cabins were free .

  ” Hennessy , Daniel ” finally came around . There were only a handful of us left waiting . ” I’m sorry ,” she said ,” the only available is one bed in a four bed cabin . You share cabin with three others . ”

  I had already reviewed scenarios as I waited . To share a two bed cabin I may have accepted . To share with three others was out . ” I will have to pass ,” I told her . 

   Well , you would have had to have seen  the situation . Groups of gypsies had already staked out areas of floor , on the cafeteria floor and  in the hallways . They had spread out thick colorful blankets and the women had gone to sleep . No one bothered them . The weaving drunken Poles avoided them on the way to the toilets . The disco lounge was full until closing time . Steel grates were then pulled closed .

  There was a large  cafeteria . Men had already passed out in there , their heads slumped on the tables ,  exhausted beer bottles in clumps watching like so many silent green witnesses . A few men had stretched out under tables . The gypsy men had already commandeered the floor area near the door to the toilets and were snoring next to their women .

    I saw the Polish guy who I had met earlier . I asked him in Polish how he was doing . He was a walking dead-drunk by this time , after the bars had closed , and barely conscious . ” Dobra “, he said . Good . And you ? Fine , too . I had been sitting in a chair hours before when he had approached and grunted something agressive at me in Polish , looking for a fight .  I got up out of the chair . ” No problem ,” I said .

  ” Polish ? ” I asked him , pointing at his chest .

” Tak.” Yes .

” Dobre Wietur ! ” I said .

 He shook my hand . ” Dobre Wietur !”

” Sweden ? ” he said , pointing at me .

” American .”  He stood up , insisted I take the chair . I refused . He insisted some more .  We were instant friends . ” No , no , bengie tam , bengie tam “, I said .   I was going to the disco bar for a comfortable chair . I pointed .  I saw him again hours later and we parted with  mutual thumbs ups .

  And I picked a particular place under a table in the cafeteria to sleep . It was under a tv that was still on . The volume was low but a couple of drinkers at one of the tables were still watching whatever was on screen . They smiled at me as if to say how silly to sleep under the tv. I guess that they were a couple of beers away from sleep . I smiled back as if to agree . It was an absurd situation all round . I should have listened to that ticket clerk in Szczecin and sprung for a cabin when I paid for the ticket.  

 Four hours of sleep . No one stole my wallet or took my camera . I was good to go . Could have been worse . Could have been a lot worse . ” But you’re a sixty year old man ,” Ada said later . ” You should have had a cabin.”   Next time .

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Crossings

I was writing this in a small cafe on Mogadishu . It’s a walking street with cafes, beer places, and a small theater. The newest place is at the corner. It’s called the American Club .  No Americans in sight , of course , but plenty of Elvis pictures and Route 66 signs . I listened to a young guy talking on the cell phone today in the library across from the medical college . Sounded like American English . No doubt in my mind . His conversation was salted with what I thought had to be American speech : ” Yeah, I’m going to fucking London this weekend……”
So I waited. This was a big deal : an American in Szczecin ! For five minutes I looked at an Asian art exhibit waiting for him to finish the call .  Then he got off the phone and started to climb some stairs .
“American ?”
“No , I’m Swedish,” he said . ” Are you American ?”
“Yeah.”
“What are YOU doing in Szezecin ?”
It was raining a little , so I decided then to go over to Mogadishu. The true name is , I think , Bogudishu , but I call it Mogadishu . It was meant to be a hot spot for tourists , but has become a hangout for beer-drinking teens ,  some gypsies , and a few beggars  .  I have yet to see any tourists. The Maly Teatre , the little theater cafe , has Internet access . It’ a nice calm place to come for a beer and soup or pierogi and to try to check email .
I was sitting outside earlier writing a brilliant post about the Polish ferry , but rain , thunder , and lightening  eventually swept me indoors and , somehow , I lost whatever brilliant stuff that I had written . So I began again .
In Poland they don’t kick you out of restaurants . They let you sit and take your time , relax . No rush . As an AmerIcan I feel uncomfortable after awhile . Don’t they need the table ?
Wait for a post about the Polish ferry. It will be a good one. Meanwhile , I am discouraged using iPad to write my post , losing stuff , wondering whether or not to order another beer just to write a few more paragraphs . Waiting for the rain to stop . I made the mistake of asking someone in Ireland , once ,that question about the same time of year .

” When do you think that the rain will stop ? ”

” June ,” he said. He wasn’t kidding . I imagine it’s the same here .

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Swedish skolan

A few days ago I took a ferry over from Poland to Ystad , Sweden , and wound my way north by bus and by train to where my friend Scott lives , Jönköping . Yesterday he interviewed for a teaching job and today he got a call to work.

I am sitting now in a teacher’s lounge in a Swedish school waiting for Scott to have a break so that he can take me to the train station . Odd situation sitting in a school. I thought that I was done with schools , and here I am listening to teachers gossip and chat in Swedish . I can guess what is being said back and forth , having heard such conversations for 35 years .

The school is four years old and is very clean.  It seems extremely orderly. Several of the teachers are from other countries. I met a Greek guy , a Canadian, and someone from Bosnia. The Swedes speak English when in the company of anyone who doesn’t speak their language . Very polite people .

When I arrived here I went looking for a pay phone . Pay phones are dinosaur devices nowadays , but I eventually found  one . It didnt work . I asked a passerby to help me with it  but he couldn’t get it to work either . So I asked another man. He lent me his cell phone to call Scott . Problem solved .

I just had a long conversation with a counselor here who had dealt with a large fight on campus yesterday. She had been calling parents all evening . We discussed discipline problems in schools — right up my alley .

In three hours I will be riding à comfortable Swedish train gliding through the countryside on the way to Malmö  and  then to Ystad. Then I will board the ferry and decide whether or not to pay for a cabin to sleep the night  or to just sit it out on a chair. I have to check out the chairs. I was warned in the Unity Line office by the Polish clerk that this ferry will be a Polish ferry , and so it will not be as comfortable a chair as going over. Going over was a Swedish ferry . She hinted that maybe I could get a cheaper cabin deal after the ship sails . Who knows ?

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Szczecin

Poland .

     The first time I came to Szcezin , twenty years ago , a friend of Ada’s met me at the train station . I had come in from Berlin . He was a sailor , is a ship’s officer now and on one of his cruises . I’m sorry that I won’t see him this time . His English is  good , was way back then  when it was hard to find English lingo in Szczecin anywhere . Now the young people all seem to  speak it , at least a little . They study English now , I guess , instead of the standard Russian that had been compulsory in Ada’s school  days  here . Thank you , Lech , and all the independent -minded Poles during Solidarity struggles .

    The sailor showed me the harbor , first . Naturally ! Szczecin has the biggest harbor in Poland , I’m told , bigger than Gdansk . ” Of course it was all bombed out during the war , ” he told me as we stood on the parapet at the castle, near an ancient cannon pointing out ,  and looked .

    ” By the Germans , ” I said . Ignorantly . He looked at me like ” What is your problem ? ” because this was Germany until 1945 . Post war , borders were changed . Germans had to move west and Poles from the east moved in . Most of the buildings in the city are German -built .

   ” No , ” he said , patiently , ” By the British and the Americans .”  History lesson instantly slapped onto a history teacher !

  The Germans built the city , Stettin , as a resort . The architecture is gorgeous , gargoyles and angels on the facades , turbaned roofs , doors carved into lion’s heads and lilies , mosaic tiled flooring in the entryways, plazas , wide walking streets  ……….    But the Commies let it all slide into decay over those years . Actually , I read that Germany didn’t officially completely give up claim to the city until the 1970s . The  story that I heard years ago was that the Communist government didn’t want to sink money into restoring a city that might go back to the Germans .

   In recent years , though , much of the city is being restored to it’s original beauty . The old boulevards are amazing with the buildings painted bright colors and the relief-sculptures re-done . And , this time , the city seems to be in a building frenzy . Streets are being re-surfaced . There are huge new office buildings . Someone has money .

   I have not been here for two years . I can see some of the changes more sharply , maybe , than people who are here all the time . People speak more freely on the streets , short comments to strangers , sharing random observations, perhaps . Maybe it was alwasys like this , but I don’t think so . Before , people were closed in public , isolated , a sort of self-imposed isolation , formality . The tenseness of the faces radiated heat ( almost ) .  Now I see a lot more relaxation in public . Maybe it’s a result of all those young Poles working abroad and bringing different habits back home with them . Maybe it’s just a home grown change in culture .

   And I will mention this again because it impresses me  : they don’t drink and drive . ( Drink and walk is another story ! ) Last night again we went to a dinner and , since drinks were served , whoever drove there took a taxi home and left the car until tomorow . Very strict . That’s a good thing . Driving around here is bad enough without drunks on the road . ( That’s a sermon for another time ) .

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Poland 3

  There is a building boom going on here in Szczecin . As I write this I am listening to the men tear up the street a few floors down . They are removing the old asphalt which was laid over the old stone streets . On nearby streets they have installed wide , red , bicycle lanes . They are not next to the curbs because the cars park over the curbs on part of the sidewalks .

   I haven’t seen very many bikes in the city . Maybe they expect a bike boom . Maybe Szczecin is planning ahead . Those few bicycle riders are going to have a highway to themselves on the roads , on those wide red lanes . Maybe the Copenhagen Danes will come over , now , for holidays to fill the wide red bike lanes . Anything could happen . Sky’s the limit !

   I wish that the city would spend more of that construction energy repainting the buildings . Ada says that they already are , and it’s true that many buildings have been restored , and they are beautiful . Let’s do the whole city before putting up new buildings , I say .  That would pull tourists in . Maybe it’s just me . Our friend Jurek , who is in real estate here  , says the real estate business has been a disaster and the new buildings are doomed to be empty . But everyone admires them !  A sign of progress in the city . Time will tell .

    Ada and I went to a milk bar for breakfast . I had fazolki bretonia , which is a soupy bean concoction with ham , and compote , which is a cherry drink . Both very good . Ada had herring , which she said was very good , too . Milk bars in the Communist days served no meat or fish , were cheap therefore , with simple Polish food , and were full of students and old people , Ada says . This one is still cheap , but now there is meat and fish . Things change . That’s progress !

   Shorts . I am seeing hordes of Polish men in shorts in the warm weather . Ada sees them too but stilll clings to the idea that shorts on Polish men is not part of the culture . Look , Ada Look ! See Shorts !  I guess it’s hard to accept change . That’s progress for you !

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Poland 2

   Ada made a delicious pickle soup yesterday . I had discussions with some of the folks about the use of “dinner” and “supper” , during which I realized that I haven’t heard the word supper used for a long long time . Is it used in America any more ?  And , even before it went out of use , I used it interchangeably with the word dinner . Sabina the English student was significantly shocked with our sloppy use of perfectly good words , shocked when I told her that , as far as I knew , “supper” was out . She complained about her English-Polish books not telling her what I was . Language changes , girl , and so it goes .

   Sabina wants to be correct in her use of English . Exceedingly correct . She asks me grammar questions that I can’t answer . ” Do you use past perfect conjunctive superlative infinitive in a sentence like that ? ”  I don’t admit that I never even learned such grammar terms in school if we ever studied them . What I tell her is ” Americans don’t care ” . That never seems to go over well with serious Polish studiers of English . I’ve told her several times that , as fine and diligent a student of language as she obviously is , she must have missed that day of class when they said that Americans don’t really care to be exactly correct on points of grammar . Some of them live an entire life without knowing genitive case , past perfect , or conditional this-or-that .  Amazing !

  And then there’s the guy named Wesley who I met years ago , before so many Poles began to learn English . He was brought to me as the local speaker of English . Wesley had worked two years for an old Jewish tailor in New York . He made a sign of rolling up his sleeves , Wesley did , and said proudly to me , ” I warsh the schtinkin’ shoits ! ” to explain what work he did in America . It was great . Great accent .

     I’m not being critical about Polish English students . Most of the young people I’ve met speak at least some English without a noticeable accent . I speak about ten words of Polish and no doubt with a goofy accent .

    I wanted to mention the sidewalks here in Szczecin . They are made of large stones laid out with smaller stones or bricks laid in between . Have heavy shoes to walk them in , I would say , if you come . I brought sneakers [ I use the word “sneakers” because you will know what they are ; but my family always said ” tennis shoes” . Same thing . I never used the term ” sneakers” before . I think it’s East coast usage and sounds strange to me even now ]. And watch for the cars because they pull right up there on the sidewalks , over the curbs , to park . The word ” sidewalk” loses some of it’s key meaning when the walking place becomes a parking place . Oh well . Just be aware that a driver might nose up into your sidewalk space at any moment , hunting desperately for a piece of sidewalk to squeeze his car in to .

   Back to the pickle soup . Ada’s mother brought over a package of something wrapped tightly in a plastic bag . To me it looked like a clump of little white dumplings . Ada boiled them . She and her mom peeled them , one by one , and slipped the ( slimey !) little lima bean out and popped them one by one into their mouths . Oh , so good ! A pile of bean skins piled up on each of their plates . I never saw lima beans served this way . Ada says that the Armenian stores in L.A. sell  lima beans like this . I won’t go after them when I get back . I hate lima beans . I’ve always hated lima beans .  

   Last night there was a traffic accident outside on the street . A couple of young women all dressed up for a party ( it was Saturday night !) tried , I guess, to out run a tram and didn’t quite make it . The tram hit their rear fender (Do cars still have fenders ? ) , spun them around a couple of times , squished the corner of the car and knocked off the bumper . No one was hurt [ at least not until she tells daddy what happened to his shiney new car ] .The cops were on the scene immediatley . An ambulance seemed to have already been  there , by coincidence , and it left after checking things out .

  I am drinking my bottle of Bosman and then going to bed . My heels hurt a little from walking the rough sidewalks in tennis shoes but I switched to sandals with heavier soles and all is well . I’m looking forward to having more of that pickle soup in the morning . With a piece of good Polish bread .

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Polskiego Post

   I am in Poland writing this post .

   The beer is good . There is a beer store not far from where I am staying owned by an English speaking guy who had lived in London for awhile . He wanted to stay there but his wife was homesick and they moved back to Szececin . He sells a variety of unusual beers . Most of them seem to be from around the area . I bought a black German beer from near Swinoschie , which is on the Baltic. The ferries leave from there for Sweden and Denmark . They used to go to Denmark , anyway .  Maybe the Copenhagen ferry quit service recently . I’ve heard rumors .  Things change .
Ada had me buy a bottle of Teachers Scotch for friends . They were the ones who brought us from Berlin to Szczecin . We went over to their place for dinner last night and had a delicious meal . There was another guy there , too , and not much of the Scotch was left , I suspect , by the time we left . The other guy , Jurek , drove us over to their flat , but Jurek and Valdek were tasting the Teachers and Jurek ended up leaving his car there for the night and the three of us , Ada , Jurek, and I,  took a taxi home . The Poles are good about not drinking and driving .
I’ve been wearing cargo shorts around the city . Ada wasn’t too sure about that , at first . ” No Polish men wear shorts ,”she said. But now they do (1), and I am not Polish (2) , so I ventured it. Besides standing out as a tourist I was o.k. , and I saw several Polish men in shorts . People tried to talk to me in German . That’s all . I know enough German to order a beer and that’s it .
The younger people here speak English , nowadays . It’s not a problem ordering in a restaurant or beer place . Ten or fifteen years ago it was a small miracle finding someone who understood English . Now no . I think most of the waiters/waitresses also speak German and maybe Russian too .
In Szczecin , nevertheless, I think it is a rare thing to run into English speaking tourists . I did hear one German soldier here speaking English in an Internet store and making himself understood . Last time I was here I heard a few young guys  speaking english , so , being American , I butted in and talked to them . They were Isreali medical students and , I think , happy to talk to an American there .  Americans ? I’m sure that there are some besides us somewhere in the city . Somewhere . I might die of shock if I ran into one of them , however. Never have in twenty years of coming here . I met two Brits once . In  the Dublin Pub . They were two young guys and more than a little snotty , I thought . Maybe they thought the same about me . I once met an English speaking Norwegian ship captain and his Crew . Also in the Dublin Pub.
   I used to know all the pubs : Dublin , London Pub , the Cutty Sark ,TheBoston Pub , Petttie Paris……. But they are mostly dark little dungeons to me now . I prefer the sidewalk beer places and open air cafes to have a beer or a coffee and watch the crowds walk by , say “thank you” to the waiter or waitress and get a “you’re welcome ” in good English in response ( seems like a big deal here ) , usually with a little smile that I think hints at pride in knowing the language and using it when the opportunity arose .

I am sitting in the “Maly Theatre” cafe writing this because they have Internet connection here . I am inside since the weather changed this morning and decided to be a little cold and rainy . I am having a coffee. The waiter asked me if I wanted a piece of plum pie with my coffee. It’s a promotion today . I told him no thanks since I just had a big breakfast . “Thats O.K. , ” he said with one of those telling smiles .

   Tomorrow we go on a river cruise if the weather permits . And if they get the ” twenty or twenty-five passengers ” they need . And if they decide it’s a good day to cruise .

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