On Christmas morning we woke up and had a big breakfast with mostly different polish sausages and meats. It was very different from the Christmas breakfasts we have at home. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, doing nothing, and obviously me working on catching up on this blog. We went to two parties at friends’ homes, where Janek’s theater group performed at one of them. Tonight we went out for dinner with our friends and walked around the market in the main square.
So all day Christmas Eve we cleaned and cooked together, which actually was a lot of fun. I brought a few traditions from home, hanging stocking along the staircase and filling them with small gifts for everyone, and making punch again. In terms of Polish traditions we ate an eight course meal without any meat. Three soups, fish, cabbage dishes, and some pasta, followed by four different cakes. Before we set the table we put a small amount of hay under the tablecloth to symbolize Jesus’ manger, and gifts were exchanged after dinner (a secret lottery was done, so each person had another person but no one ever found out who their gifts were from). Jacek and I went to mass at midnight at the church down the street, where his brother is part of the service.
On Sunday mornings Mr. and Mrs. Bulak go to the grave of Mr. Bulak’s mother, father, and gradparents. I wasn’t expecting the cemetery to suprise me, but it was so different from an American cemetery. Even though the people are buried under the ground, they build these huge above ground monuments, and some graves even have pictures. The cemetery also has some very moving monuments for soldiers who died in World War I, Communism, and victims of the holocaust.
Jacek’s sister invited us to her home for a Christmas party last Saturday where we enjoyed several traditional Polish dishes, a lot of vodka, some punch I made, and a lot of fun. In this case you did not have to drink to one another, but could only take shots all together. Dorota’s home was beautiful, and she put on a really wonderful party. Oh, and her friend was on the Polish version of “The Voice” and won another singing competition as part of a group.
My first cooking class with Ms. Ela detailed how to make pierogis, and something similar to tortellini that is put in soup. She began by teaching me how to make the filling using a grinder to puree both mushrooms and meat. Then we made dough, and she showed me how to form the dumplings. We cooked a few to make sure that they tasted okay, and then froze the rest for Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner.
As Christmas was approaching, the steady invites to birthday and name day parties changed to invites to holiday parties. The first one was for all of the people that Jacek studies with at his university, in his engineering program. I’ve learned that once Polish people have had a little/a lot of vodka, they are suddenly more willing to speak English with me. I had some great conversation with Jacek’s friends girlfriends, and learned of a house party tradition in Poland. The room starts with one shot glass, and always only one bottle of vodka. If I have the shot glass I must drink to someone, meaning I says, “Cheers, (insert name)!” and take my shot, then pour them a shot, and they do the same to someone else. Every time the host re-enters the room he/she can add another shot glass, and only he can get another bottle of vodka for the room. So essentially, you are only drinking when someone drinks to you, and sometimes you get caught in a circle of 3 or 4 people who keep passing the shots around. Other than the shots, most people do not drink anything, meaning there isn’t a beer in everyone’s hand like at an American house party, you are just waiting your turn. Also, everyone brought a bottle of vodka for the host, and a lot of people also bring food for the party.
With the little time we had outside of the baths we were able to see a few city sights. We walked through City Park, saw the amazing monument in Hero’s Square, the castle that was built rather recently for a World’s Fair, and the castle that was built a long time ago, a beautiful bridge, and of course their huge market hall where we bought Unicum (a liquor traiditonal to the area), a bottle of Hungarian wine, and of course some papryka. We were fortunate enough to eat goulash, potatoe donuts, fried dough, and veal stew, proving that Budapest is actually a wonderful place for good, traditional, Hungarian food.
The most amazing experience I have ever had in Europe was last week in Budapest. I have always wanted to go to a thermal bath, but the timing has never worked out, so for my first experience I decided to do it the right way and go to what most consider the best baths in the world. We started at Szechenyi Baths, which are the most glamorous, having both indoor and outdoor pools. Even in below freezing weather, the outside baths are a wonderful way to spend your time. To lay out how the baths look, there are 3 outdoor pools, and over 10 indoor ones. Outdoors, the pool on the left is the “adventure” pool with jets that spin you around, and bubbles too. The pool in the middle is for swimming laps, is actually pretty cold, and you must wear a swimming cap to get in. We ended up having to buy three caps because Jacek kept losing his, but that’s a different story. Inside the 10+ baths are all different temperatures, going up and down about 2-3 celsius, so that you can toggle your body temperature. And then there is a really really cold bath, for if you get too overheated. The other baths we went to were at the Gellert Spa, their outdoor complex was not as exciting in the winter because only 1 small pool is open, but the indoor baths are beautiful and much fancier.
Overall the guidebooks were right; there were a lot of old fat Hungarians in speedos, the buildings were a little complicated at first, but easily navigable, and the cleanliness of the activity was questionable but absolutely worth it. Jacek and I both agreed that we enjoyed the Szechenyi Baths the most, and I would like to add that flip flop and a robe would have made the experience better, and keeping our towels in a locker, as opposed to carrying them around from bath to bath.
As some of you may know I love Ikea, but I hate that it is 3 hours away from my house. Fortunately there are plenty of Ikeas in Europe and I was able to go to one just 10 minutes from where I am staying. It was just like the ones in America, so not much to report there, but they do have an ice cream machine which is the point of this post. For 33 American cents, I can get an ice cream cone out of a machine. I put 1 zlotys in, a cone pops out, I place it into a holder, and the machine dispenses the appropriate amount. For 33 cents, I decided to have 3. Also, there was a car in the parking lot from Pennsylvanina, which I found to be just a little bit confusing.
The resort town in the Tatra Mountains is Zakopane, where we went after our hike to walk through the market and have dinner at a wonderful log-cabinesque restaurant, suggested to us by Jacek’s good friend David and his fiance. We had ribs with potatoe dumplings and Zurek soup. And we also bought some of the specialty cheese the area is famous for that you can grill and eat with jam. It is very smokey and salty, similar to a cheese I had in Italy.
Poland; as well as, Slovokia, are known for the beautiful Tatra Mountains. We were lucky enough to have a beautiful day of weather where we could hike about 10 miles through the snow and ice to see the frozen Lake Morskie Oko, a sight that I cannot wait to go back and see in the warmer months. For people unable to hike that far, or who have the luxury of wealth, a horse and carriage can be hired to take you to the top, with just a short walk to the lake.
For the second Sunday in a row, the Bulak family gathered for dinner. We ate the traditional Rosso, or chicken noodle soup, along with what they call “second meal”. After dinner I taught everyone how to roast marshmallows and make s’mores. Everyone seemed to like them, even though they weren’t made properly (as I couldn’t find graham crackers in Poland and had to settle for thicker cookies).
Jacek’s brother Janek is very involved in the community, especially the local Catholic Church. One Sunday we were able to watch him perform a play he has been rehearsing all winter with a theater troupe. In this performance Janek played Death; they change characters each performance so you never know who he will be. The play was about King Herod and the moment in history when he ordered all of the male children to be killed.
We left Prague early on Saturday morning to make it back to Krakow for a birthday party. Starting at a bar in the main square, we suprised the birthday boy, and then continued to crawl around the area, with of course a stop at McDonald’s. I always make sure to try the local McDonald’s because suprisingly it is always different than ours at home. I got the lumberjack burger, which get this, has a fried cheese patty on it as well. It was delicious. Back at the party however, I decided to get some Mad Dog shots (which as you may have read before, Mr. Andre had just introduced me to), but these were much spicier than his, and to be honest very overwhelming. Jacek’s best friend Paul was also with us, and so we headed home early to get some rest for the next day…Oh and also, Jack let me style his hair like an American, even though he, and all his friends, hated it.