Still More Playing

So I’ve gone all in — Lightroom all the way. I’ve been importing photos all evening, and in the process, I’ve learned a thing or two.

First, the number of photos was actually a little surprising. When it was all said and done, over seventy thousand photos over a span of eighteen years, with most of them being over the last thirteen years or so.

Second, the spread: most years, I was taking around three to four thousand pictures. In 2013, the number jumped up six thousand pictures. In 2014, it was just under ten thousand. And in 2015, I topped ten thousand pictures. Not sure why that change happened, but it’s stayed roughly in that range since then. In 2017, I’ve taken almost three and a half thousand pictures, so it seems to be down this year. Of course, we’re going to Poland this summer, so it will likely shoot back up.

Of course Lightroom is not just a photo organization tool, and so I’ve spent the evening playing with some of the old photos I imported.

Sometimes, I do very little, like al ittle darkening of spots.



Sometimes, I like to try to give it an edgy feel.



And every now and then, it’s been fun just to push everything to its limits: pump up the colors, the contrast, the clarity — everything.



More Playing

I put it off as long as possible — that’s how I explain it to myself. But push came to shove, and I finally began playing with Lightroom. What a tool.



I especially like the highlights on the trees to the left. I think I went a bit overboard with them, but the idea is good.

Sunday Vignettes

One: Alone Together

The Boy wanted to get into the Girl’s room; the Girl wanted some “alone time,” which we all do from time to time. With the two of them, that conflict is a frequent occurrence. As parents, K and I must balance the two opposing factors:

  1. The Girl needs to learn that she can’t be by herself all the time. She needs to have a relationship with her brother.
  2. The Boy needs to learn that he can’t play with L all the time, that she needs some privacy.

I feel like we need to be keeping score of the whole thing: one time forcing L to let the Boy in her room; one time getting the Boy to understand that the Girl needs some privacy from time to time.

Two: Countering

The Boy was looking for his Bugatti (toy, of course).

“I last saw it on the counter downstairs,” I tell him.

He thumps his way downstairs, wanders around a while. Then I hear him ask K, “Mommy, what’s a counter?”

Three: Special Music

During the announcements at the close of Mass, Fr. Longenecker pointed out the fact that the text of the communion hymn dates from the twelfth century and the music from the sixteenth. At that moment, several thoughts that had been swirling randomly in Mass coalesced.

First, at one point, I was thinking about how different a Roman Catholic Mass is from the church services I attended in my youth. All the smells and the bells have no correlation with the staid services we had. And yet there was a certain similarity: each service was identical in its format just as each Mass is identical in its order of liturgy. I suppose that’s true of all churches.

Still, our church being Protestant (though its members then would have begged to differ most vociferously), liked to suggest that if it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t do it. I found myself in Mass briefly wondering about the liturgy (for lack of a better term) the church followed: it’s no where in the Bible. I believe the pastor would have suggested it’s one of the traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2.15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.”

Thinking about it further, I remembered the little distinctives of our service. We had a short warm-up message called a sermonette. Google shows that other denominations use the sermonette format, but it’s certainly not a common feature. After the sermonette were announcements, followed by something called special music, then the sermon.

The special music was always some kind of choir performance or solo piano performance. Choral numbers were always selections from sacred music (but we had to be careful about that text!), but instrumental music was often some kind of classical composition. I choked down a laugh in Mass thinking about that, wondering if it was “special” music if it appeared every week.

Four: Divine Mercy

The first Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Since this particular celebration began in Poland, it’s a pretty big thing for the Polish community. At our church, we have a newly-consecrated shrine to the Divine Mercy with relics of St. Faustina and St. Pope John Paul II.

Not bad for a little Catholic church in Greenville, SC, home of Bob Jones University — probably the most virulently anti-Catholic school in the States.


The name comes from the verb przepalać, which means to overheat, blow, or scorch. For instance, when a lightbulb (żarówka) blows out, the verb of choice to chronicle the event is “przepalać” (with the reflexive “się” added to confuse foreigners). Likewise with a fuse — they’re still fairly common in Poland and in much of Europe, with the old buildings that still have old wiring.


Cleaning the bottles

It also means “scorch,” though, as in to scorch sugar, as in to caramelize sugar. It’s from this that the name “przpalanka” comes from.


The finished product

I first encountered przepalanka when my neighbor, a fellow American who was getting married in early 1997, invited me over for a Friday evening game of chess. I still didn’t know how to play chess, and he less so. We were basically just moving pieces around without any sense of strategy, but we could chat. And so when I entered, he greeted me with a strange declaration: “Look, we made vodka!”


Measuring the sugar

We made it for our wedding, too. And it was the result of a jolt of terror during the wedding celebration.


Przepala się

“We’re about out of vodka!” K proclaimed at about ten in the evening, when the party was just getting started.



Fortunately, she just meant przepalanka — else it would have been the end of the party.

Twenty Years Ago Today

The dinner was infinite. Every two hours or so they brought out another course. And there were snacks on the tables at all times. We had cutlet for the main course followed later by meat and rice; the egg-roll-type things were served with barszcz; cold cuts stayed on the table all evening, too. And of course there was vodka. The seventy some odd bottles R made certainly did not go to waste.

There was a most interesting traditional dance. E began waltzing with R, then someone would approach them, clap, and cut in. Whenever someone was done dancing with E, he/she/they (often couples danced with E, making a strange circle) headed over to where R was. After dropping money into a hat held by some lady, the shook R’s hand and took a shot which R had poured.

During the dance the band would often stop playing and whoever was dancing with E would make up a verse, often belting it out while another sang the slightly out of tune harmony so common to this area. One lady must have taken six or more verses.

After this was completed, the crowd grabbed E and R and tossed them up and down. R had quite a frightful expression the entire time. It looked like a blast to me, but R solemnly informed me, “It’s dangerous! I could have smashed my head on the floor or the ceiling!”

Joe and I went out for a walk this morning to take some pictures. He did a lot this weekend to help me with my new camera. I feel much more confident in my picture-taking ability now.

Journal entry from my first Polish wedding


Early Christmas

A package for Christmas from the Polish shop.

Plums in chocolate, finger-sized sausages (“You can eat as many of those as you want this summer in Poland,” I told E when he fussed about not being able to eat yet another bit), fermented rye flour for soup (L requested it for her birthday meal — that’s my Polish girl!), fat links of sausage, German coffee (the type I always bought in Poland — Tchibo Exclusive, which you can get from Amazon, but it’s not the same, is it?), and other goodies.

When I got home, K excitedly led me to the front door to show me a box sitting by the door. “How wonderful,” I thought, not realizing what was in it.

How wonderful, indeed.

Krakow Past

I first went to Krakow in the summer of 1996 (June 22 to be precise, according to my journal), catching a train in Radom at five in the morning to arrive some time around eight. I’d just arrived in Poland with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, most of whom and come like I, to teach English. Half a dozen of us boarded the train, found an empty compartment, and chattered away as the train clattered away. “I never really thought I would be in this city. To be honest, I never thought about this city. But never the less, here I am,” I wrote that first evening.

What struck me then was the ancient architecture: St. Mary’s Basilica on the rynek, Wawel castle on the hill overlooking the old town, the rynek itself with its cobbles and pigeons. When I arrived at my home for two years (which eventually stretched to seven years), I went to Krakow frequently, and the churches and ancient architecture grew known and, dare I say it, common. It became part of “home” in an extended sense.

What I came to notice, sadly, was the negative, in particular the old bus station, where I arrived and departed for every trip to Krakow (and every trip to the north). It was small, with a crowded waiting room and only six ticket windows, most of which remained shuttered. Lines for tickets were long; lines waiting to get on buses out back were long. And everything — everything — was dull gray concrete.


“Bus Station”

I hated waiting there. It was stuffy in the summer and freezing in the winter. It reeked of stale beer and urine, and everyone seemed angry — and no wonder. Yet in the mid-nineties, there was no other option. There were a handful of private bus companies running, but the vast majority was the state-run Polskie Koleje Samochodowe, known simple as PKS. And due to where I lived, I had to wait somewhere. There was one direct bus to Lipnica Wielka that left every evening around six. If I finished at three, I had three hours.

There were options, of course. Most often, I simply planned my arrival to the station at around 5:30 to minimize waiting. In the meantime, I wondered the streets, sat in some cheap restaurant drinking tea, or dropped into a church to sit for a while.

The best option was a church: it was quite, relatively warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and free. I could find a quiet spot, sit, and read. Wandering the streets was always enjoyable — who doesn’t enjoy wandering around an ancient city? — but in January, it was simply miserable.

Restaurants were the trickiest of all. The decent ones (i.e., clean and well-light) were often more expensive than what I was willing to pay. There was a McDonald’s at the end of Florianska Street even in the mid-nineties, and I often dropped in for the simple reason of the cleanness of its restrooms and the brightness of its lights. But it was always crowded, often with fellow travelers like me, so the management quickly instituted a policy that restricted the restroom facilities to paying customers. I simply began buying a small order of fries or a small drink as an easy way around the problem.

bar smok

On the other hand, I learned I could always visit a milk bar for a quick, decent, cheap bite and a warm place to sit. Opposite the bus and train stations, in fact, there was a famous one, though notorious might be a better term: Bar Smok — the Dragon Bar.

I didn’t need to see a faded picture from the sixties to know how old the place was: one look at the sign was enough.


It was legend, though. Everyone knew about Bar Smok — Poles from all over the nation and even the Americans scattered throughout the country in my PC group.

I believe I ate there once. That was enough. I likely waited there a couple more times, but as far as eating — by the late-90s, no thanks. It wasn’t the food as much as the atmosphere. As Gazetta Wyborcza explains it:

Krakowscy bonzowie pili tu gorzałkę, pielgrzymi zajadali się bułkami z jajkiem, a pechowcy czasami tracili obiad, podjedzony przez bezdomnych. Ale bigos i grochówka na stojąco były tu bezkonkurencyjne. (Source)

That introduction explains it fairly succinctly: there could be drunks consuming cheap vodka; there were often pilgrims having a cheap meal of rolls with an egg; and the unlucky did occasionally have food snatched from their plates by random homeless folks. When I dropped in the few times I did in the mid- and late-nineties, I saw all of these things. I didn’t get a chance to try the bigos or pea soup that the introduction describes as “without competition.” The other stuff just got in my way, I suppose.


The old pictures tell a different story, though. Not a story of homeless men grabbing pierogi off of the diners’ plates but a story of a fashionable, affordable restaurant with a modern, colorful neon sign. It stands in contrast with the gray office and apartment buildings around it, a flash of color in an otherwise-gray world. It was this fact that makes the neon signs stand out: “Nieco abstrakcyjny i kolorowy, rozjaśniał szarą rzeczywistość gomułkowskiej Polski,” writes one article (“Somewhat abstract and colorful, [the neon] lightened the gray of Gomułka-era Poland” — Source).


By the time I arrived, though, it had just become part of the gray. Dated and dilapidated, it was another of seemingly-endless examples of architecture that seemed like it could have never really been anything but dated.

By the time I left, though, in 2005, it was all gone: the old bus station, the Dragon Bar, and all the the gray buildings surrounding them, all torn down to make room for “Galeria Krakowa,” a modern shopping complex that could only be called a mall.


The bus station had moved to the cobblestone area in front of the train station, and the old buildings were not even a pile of rubble.


It’s tempting to say something like, “No one really misses the bus station, but it’s a real tragedy about the neon sign.” Indeed, there is a small movement in Krakow (perhaps Poland?) to rescue the neon signs of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but there’s no sign of the Smok neon:

[P]o kilku latach nikt nie jest w stanie nam powiedzieć, gdzie się teraz znajduje “Smok”. Od kilku dni próbujemy bezskutecznie to ustalić. A tymczasem to jeden z najcenniejszych przykładów neonów krakowskich. Zaprojektował go Adam Marczyński, profesor krakowskiej ASP, związany z Grupą Krakowską.

Więcej szczęścia miał neon kina Wanda przy ul. Gertrudy, które przegrało rynkową walkę z multipleksami. Ponieważ fasada (wraz z napisem) uznana została za zabytek – neon przetrwał.

The group was able to find the neon sign for the Wanda movie theater, but only because the building that housed it was declared a historical landmark building, and so the neon survived.

It’s tempting to say that, to suggest that such an ugly building as the old PKS in Krakow is better off in memory only. Yet there seems to be a tragedy in that. Yes, it’s an ugly building. Yes, it would be, had it survived, horribly dated. But I still think there’s some value in keeping those buildings. Perhaps not all of them, but some. As it is, with fewer and fewer such places still standing every year, an entire portion of Polish architectural history is disappearing.


Left in its wake are the distinctly modern designs that seem just as destined to appearing dated at the old Bar Smok and buildings of its era.

I felt the same way about the old PKS station in Nowy Targ, a station I knew much better because of the frequency of trips I took to the NT, the nearest real city (in Poland) from where I lived.

Nowy Targ Bus Station Poland

Photo by hack man

It too was strikingly dated, a relic from the sixties that was increasingly out of place architecturally. Yet that’s precisely why it should still be standing: like so much of architecture, it’s a palpable reminder of our past, of where we came from. “Perhaps Poles just want to forget that part,” a friend suggested in 2013 when we walked by the place.


Perhaps. And perhaps renovation simply wasn’t economically or architecturally feasible. Or maybe enough people just want to forget.

Sick Saturday with Old Friends

“Door” in Polish is a strange word. Like “pants” in English, it’s always plural — drzwi. It’s likely because it’s etymologically connected to “tree” and “wood,” and since old doors were made of planks, it makes sense to call them something like “planks” (though that’s not what drzwi translates to literally).


This morning, the Boy went to tell K as she was getting ready for a shower that he’d heard a scratching at the door, that it was Bida, our cat, who was trying to get his attention so that he would let her in, that he heard it and wondered what it was, that he’d figured it out, and that he let her in. K stood patiently, towel wrapped around her, listening to this whole story patiently, then asked, in Polish, for privacy: “Could you please shut the door so that I could shower?”


He replied, in English: “I’ll close them and lock them so no one will come in.” He applied Polish grammar to English, pluralizing a word that would be plural in Polish but is singular in English.


Looking Back

Why couldn’t this have been on a Friday night? Why didn’t the schedulers realize the entertainment value of this debate? Still, I think back over the years and can’t understand how we got here, and yet I understand perfectly how we got here.

Yet how did our family get here?

Ten years ago, we lived in Asheville.

Morning Walk

Fifteen years ago, we lived in Poland.

Lipnica Wielka Parish Church II

And yet that’s just us — the two of us. What matters now is the four of us.


What you see depends on where you stand. It’s true physically and culturally, and there is even some truth in it artistically. Take a novel like William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! in which the story of Thomas Sutpen takes on mythic proportions among the various narrators, each seeing what they want to see, each perspective determined by time and place of birth as well as proximity to Sutpen. We come away from the novel wondering which of the narrators we can really trust, if any of them.


In class today, we began such an examination. Various students took various positions, each of which was determined by their birth date, and the described what they saw. What came out of it was predictable but poignant: everyone was in the same room but everyone’s notes of what they saw were different. No two people made the same notes, or even close to it.

Back at home, K was getting ready for the international festival at our former parish, which still hosts the monthly Polish Mass and so still has a certain draw for us. The Polish community was to have their own booth, selling pierogi and bigos and sausage to raise money for the church.


K and some other Polish women spent last Saturday morning making and freezing pierogi, and today there was an unbelievably long line of people interested enough in Polish food to plop down a couple of $1 tickets for a bit of the old country. The bigos was not completely consumed by the end of the evening. “You know Americans and their wariness of sauerkraut,” K justified.


Still, all the pierogi disappeared, and the Poles got to show off their polka skills, and the Polish community even managed to get the pastor to take a quick shot of vodka as the evening drew to a close.


In some ways, then, the perspective of Poland didn’t really change for the visitors. Its cuisine is heavy on the cabbage and potatoes, and there’s usually alcohol involved — that would probably be the average take on Polish culture. And it’s not entirely wrong. But it is of course only one side of the culture. It would have been hard to show that in a three-hour festival along with all the other communities. People visiting a Polish booth expect pierogi, and so that’s what the community provides. A bit of a self-fullfilling prophecy, but when the food is that tasty, who really cares.


From the Boy’s perspective, it was a bit of a flop. Sure, there were hay bales to jump on and lots to see, but the music was loud, and most of the food was not to his liking.


As the sun set, a group of Latin American parishioners performed a dance that they use every year to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe. One look at the costumes and it’s clear where it all came from. Indeed, G, the de facto leader of the Polish community, came running to the Polish booth urging everyone to come watch. “The Aztecs are coming!”


How strange from a modern perspective. The pre-Columbian Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on an unbelievable scale. And yet here are people dancing in Aztec garb some centuries later and imbuing it with a decidedly Catholic interpretation. Some Christians would naturally argue that it’s still pagan and quite profane: once pagan, always pagan. These are the folks likely not to have Christmas trees or hide Easter eggs.

But what you see depends on where you stand, it from where they stand, this is Christian worship. Far be it from me to say it isn’t.


After Mass during the school year, there are a few obligatories: a fresh pot of coffee and something sweet. Feed the soul, then feed the spirit. Something like that. Perhaps accompany it with something to read, maybe a game of chess. But eventually, it’s time for the trial and treasure, for it’s something K loves and loathes doing. Polish lessons.


The love is easy: it’s her language, her culture, that she’s sharing with her beloved daughter. The loathe comes from the frustration that sometimes accompanies it. Perhaps “loathe” is not the right word — perhaps it was just too alliterative to pass up. “It’s something that K loves and that frustrates her” doesn’t quite make it. Always searching for the right word, never able to find it, which is what makes the Polish lessons so frustrating for the Girl. Her passive vocabulary, like everyone’s, is much larger than her active vocabulary. She can understand more than she can say, like me in Polish.

E, on the other hand, has of late only a passive vocabulary for the most part. The production has ceased. However, we’re seeing that language and such is perhaps just not his strength. He can watch a cartoon about how airplanes fly and remember it long afterward. (Language, though? K was trying to teach him a Polish prayer the other evening, and he replied, “You must be kidding me! I can’t remember that!”)

In the evening, it’s time to feed the soul once again — a quiet bonfire in the backyard. The temperatures have cooled, the mosquitoes have disappeared, and we’ve entered our favorite time of the year.


We’ve been waiting all summer for this. The kitchen is mostly done, our routines have returned, the weather has cooled, and it’s time to start everything again. So what better way to end than with a song by Antoine Dufour, a Quebecois guitarist, who wrote a song for his yet-unborn son, a song about waiting, a song I’ve listened to at least a dozen times this weekend. Perhaps the most beautiful acoustic guitar song I’ve ever heard.

Pierogi Party

Part of being Polish in America is sharing that culture — with your family, with friends, and even with strangers, which is why you might spend the afternoon making literally hundreds of pierogi.

The Boy, ever willing and thrilled to help, makes a mess in the interest of helping. Afterward, he will come outside and help me in the yard.