Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sleeping in Airports – Vancouver International

When it comes to sleeping in airports, Arlanda in Stockholm is a total Club Med. Quiet, plenty of soft seating without annoying armrests, and now that Rest and Fly is there – also with showers. At any given night, the whole place looks like a refugee camp with people sprawled on every available surface surrounded by mountains of luggage. Security guys on night duty always very thoughtfully step over them, careful not to disturb the sleepers.

In comparison, Vancouver looked like a total ghost airport the night I stayed there. Quiet, with plenty of soft seating (some with annoying armrests unfortunately), with vending machines (you don’t get that in Stockholm) and free internet (you don’t get that in Stockholm either). And no people. At all. Anywhere.

Yvr at night

My flight from Toronto was slightly late and when I finally got my luggage, it was already 1:30AM. I didn’t have a hotel booking, because I was hoping for a greater delay, but unfortunately, by airline standards we arrived practically on time (because really, one hour late is like nothing).

I loaded my stuff onto a baggage cart (free in Vancouver) and set on in search of a suitable sleeping place. I didn’t have to go very far. Found my perfect soft bench right in the domestic arrival hall. I checked my emails, went to the bathroom (nice big bathrooms where you can easily take your luggage cart too, not to the stall, but to the general space – not like at Arlanda where you have two sets of stupid doors), got a Coke from a vending machine and settled in for the night. A security guy asked me if I was waiting for the bus. I said that no, I was waiting for a flight. He wished me a pleasant night and left me alone.

In the morning, around 5AM, a chatty bunch of Filipinas turned on their noisy cleaning machines and did their best to wake me up. A few nasty words of Tagalog came in very handy and again I was left alone.

Still, even at 6AM when I finally got up from my bench, the airport was awfully quiet. The international terminal was dead. Even the newsstand was still closed. The domestic side was slowly waking up, and the only place that was buzzing was Tim Horton’s – of course...

All in all, a pleasant airport to spend the night at. The only drawback, or maybe I simply didn’t find them, was the lack of showers. That, and hard to find outlets – my laptop needed some serious recharging, and while there are plenty of places to do it after going through security, in the before-security areas, I couldn’t locate any conveniently placed electrical outlets. I finally ended up sitting on the floor in the middle of the international departures hall next to a pillar with a socket pissing off everybody in the process. Well, it’s not my problem they had idiots design their electrical wiring, OK?

Yvr art 1

Outlets might be hard to come by, but at least they have art. Or something that resembles art.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Those Kinky Canadians

Flying from Poland to Japan via Canada is dumb. And uncomfortable. Don’t try it, folks. Unless, of course, sitting cramped up for about 23 hours straight, sleeping in airports and being jetlagged upon jetlagged are your ideas of fun. Or, if you plan to travel with a truckload of luggage and want to take advantage of the wonderful scheme that is piece concept – then flying to Asia via North America will be your only way to go.

That was my reason. After packing, repacking, checking the weight of my bags and then repacking again (repeat multiple times over a couple of days until you can no longer stand the sight of your luggage), I finally managed to whittle down my stuff to the most essential 70 kilos.

The decision made itself. Traveling to Japan directly from Europe was out of the question. There was no way I was going to pay for 40 kilos of excess baggage (estimating that I could take 20 kgs as checked in luggage and 10 kgs in the cabin) – at 30 euro per kilo, that alone was enough to make me want to slit my wrists and bleed to death. Or travel to Japan on a donkey.

Clearly, another approach was needed. I started reading up on the piece concept.

This piece concept is a wonderful thing and whoever came up with it needs to be nominated for sainthood. When traveling to/from the US and Canada you are allowed to check in TWO bags of 23 kilos each, plus hand luggage (that’s in economy, you can take THREE bags when flying first class). Compare that to the measly 20 kilos in Europe and other parts of the world and you can see why someone desperate enough would willingly agree to travel for almost 60 hours, including layovers.

Add to that the wonderful Air Canada policy of TWO pieces of hand luggage of 10 kilos each and hassle free entry procedures (no anal probe like in the US) and hello Canada – here I come!!! Surprisingly, the price for the whole itinerary wasn’t that much more expensive than a standard flight to Japan from Europe (via Copenhagen or Helsinki).

I flew on LOT from Gdansk to Warsaw, then after five hours, on to Toronto. There, I had dinner with my friend (who also kindly allowed me to use her shower) and then continued on to Vancouver. And here – surprise, surprise! Air Canada wouldn’t let me check in my bags in Toronto all they way through to Narita, even though I had that route on a single ticket. Apparently, my 13 hour layover in Vancouver was too long for their liking. Oh well, no problem. Luggage carts in Vancouver were free (unlike in Toronto) and I slept on my bags.

And from Vancouver it was just a quick 9-hour and a bit flight to Tokyo. I arrived in one, albeit very tired and almost paralyzed, piece. My luggage got there too. And my dear husband surprised me by showing up at the airport with the car.

I got home and immediately went to sleep. And slept… And then slept some more.

When I finally woke up and began to unpack, I made an amazing discovery. My bras and panties were missing. Somewhere between Poland and Japan they had simply vanished from my luggage.

I know for certain that my bags were searched in Toronto – they appeared on a different belt than the rest of the stuff from the same flight. And who the heck knows what happened to them in Vancouver - I checked them in five hours before the flight.

I have always thought of Japan as the land of hentai. Here, it’s common for western women’s underthings to disappear from washing lines. But Canada?

And it wasn’t even anything Victoria Secret-type fancy. Just normal panties and bras from GAP.

Oh well… I needed an excuse to go shopping, anyway.


My baggage was divided into two bags of a bit more than 23 kgs each (but nobody kvetched about it) and two bags as hand luggage. Technically, they were supposed to be 10 kilos each. How heavy they were in reality, well… I better not say.

Old carrots

I got tired (not to mention rather sick) of the usual mysterious “chicken or beef” in airline meals. (This time LOT didn’t even bother with “beef” – it was either “chicken or pork”) and I had ahead of time ordered a vegetarian meal. Big mistake. The carrots were old enough to have a meaningful discussion about life, universe and everything with me. Still, that was nothing compared to the vegetarian macabre served by Air Canada – disgusting quasi-Indian garbage of very mature chickpeas and parboiled rice.

Air canada yuck

The same meal was served twice – zero variety and zero actual vegetables. My seat companion said that her non-vegetarian “salmon” wasn’t any better. We skipped the meals and sustained ourselves on crackers, nuts and Diet Coke.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open-Air Museum of Kashubian Culture in Szymbark

There are many things about Poland that I absolutely love – like for example goose schmaltz (smalec made from goose fat, as opposed to pork), which is simply divine, and from what I'm hearing - also an old folk remedy for asthma. But, on the other hand, there are many things about Poland that I absolutely hate – like the ever-present grand pomposity (or pompous grandiosity) and the need to mention the late pope, JPII, at every imaginable occasion.

The open-air museum in Szymbark (or as they write it in the Kashubian language – Szimbark) has plenty of both of my most and least favorite things. Except that instead of goose smalec, they serve very yummy, old-fashioned pig lard sandwiches, with drippings at that! (Yes, I actually eat this stuff, and no, I haven’t died yet, and my love of all things pig is one of the reasons why we’ll never move to Israel.)

However, I guess to compensate for all the noxious lardy stuff, they make those sandwiches with freshly baked whole wheat Kashubian bread. How’s that for yummy, huh?

But first things first.

I heard about this mysterious upside-down house somewhere in Kashubia and thought I’d check it out for myself. It’s not very far from Trojmiasto – less than an hour away by car. The village is called Szymbark and unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to get there by public transport. What’s even more unfortunate, the people working at the open-air museum, which by the way, is the only attraction worth mentioning in that village, couldn’t tell me either.

So, you’ll have to drive. And when you drive, you’ll have to park. And THAT may prove to be rather difficult, if you decide to visit the place on a sunny summer weekend.

The easiest way is to park in the long line of cars (very easy to notice) by the side of the road and have a pleasant walk.


Don't worry, it only looks like the line is stretching on forever, in reality it's about 1km long, at the very most.

The parking lot by the entrance to the museum will be full, so don’t even bother. Unless, of course, you are planning to be there very early, right at the opening time – 9AM on weekdays and 10AM on Sundays and public holidays, then you might have a chance of an empty parking spot right by the gate.

Since we came late, we parked by the side of the road, about 500 meters from the entrance, and simply followed the crowd.

When you finally reach the gate and buy a ticket (9PLN, children under 6 – free, no discounts for students and old folks), you’ll be surprised to learn that the official name of the place isn’t something easy and simple to remember, such as “Skansen in Szymbark”  or "Open-Air Museum in Szymbark", but the totally convoluted and grandiose “Center for the Education and Promotion of the Region”. Yeah, whatever. No wonder that many foreigners complain they can’t find any info on the museum on the internet! Especially since the webpage of the CEPR thingie doesn’t have an English version, either.

But hey, as I always say, it takes all kinds.

(By the way, what is it with this Polish love of long and incomprehensible names? Do people here think it sounds more sophisticated? More important? More grandiose? Do men in charge of these things think up those long names to compensate for their small penises? – Don’t smirk, this is Poland, ANYTHING is possible here!)

Once inside, the place is delightful, stupid name, or not.

The main attraction, of course, is the upside down house. And instead of advertising it for what it is, the managers of the museum chose instead to turn it into an allegory on communism. The description of the house mentions the valiant struggle for independence, the world turned upside-down (I guess this is the main theme), the evils of communism, and the pope. Of course it just wouldn’t be Poland, if a simple tourist attraction in the middle of Polish nowhere, didn’t mention JPII.

Upside down house

The line to enter the house is always rather long, but well worth the 45 minutes, or so, it takes to get inside.

The house is cool, though. You have to wait in a monstrous line to get inside, but trust me, it’s well worth it. Why? It’s amazing what a couple of slanted boards can do to that thingie in your inner ear that provides you with the sense of balance.

Upsidedown house inside 2

Yep, the furniture is bolted to the floor and you walk on the ceiling.

Upstairs in the house, there is a very mediocre (and I’m being generous here, OK?) art gallery, featuring, among others, a rather large painting of the late pope.

My favorite building in the whole museum was the bakery (right-side up). The smell alone was worth the visit. The bread is made right then and there using traditional recipes and methods. And it’s good. No, scratch that. It’s better than good. And mind you, I don’t normally say that about bread. I rather dislike the stuff, in general.

Kashubian bread

The signs in this photo are not in Polish, but in Kashubian.

If you don’t want to buy a whole loaf, you can stop by at one of the many feeding holes located on the property. They all serve more or less the same. We chose a small, dark hut to the left of the fishing pond (where you can fish your own fish and have it cleaned and grilled while you wait, fishing rods are provided). 


That's the grill your own sausage group session, just like therapy, but much more pleasant.

In the middle of the hut there was an open fire over which you could grill sausages yourself. But since I wasn’t in a sausage mood, we chose bread with lard. Freshly baked bread with salted, old lard with dripping and bacon bits. With a pickle on the side. Heaven! There were other items on the menu, but really, who cares, if you can have bread with smalec, right? I literally inhaled the stuff. It was so good it made me shake inside. Either that, or it was my arteries clogging.

Behind the lard place there was another attraction – an actual Siberian forced labor hut, complete with the hammer and sickle and a portrait of Uncle Joe above the door. But it was the photographs on the walls that made me want to cry.

Siberian hut

Those are beds, not shelves. Up to 50 people occupied a single hut. They had to huddle together on those beds not to freeze to death.

I had no idea that so many Kashubs had been sent to forced labor camps in Siberia. I had no idea they had been loaded onto cattle cars and shipped across the Soviet Union. The unlucky ones, who had survived the trip, were faced with something we can’t even begin to imagine. And yet, some of them survived that too, and either returned home, or found local wives (or husbands) and stayed in Siberia.

A photographer and adventurer from Sopot (or Gdansk, depending on whom you ask), Romuald Koperski, visited the descendants of those Polish Kashubians (or Kashubian Poles) still living in Siberia and the photos from this expedition can be seen at the museum, as well. Fascinating stuff, really.
There’s even an original locomotive used back then on exhibit, too. And can you believe that this thing was still in use in Russia (Kaliningrad, to be exact) in 1985? But not to send people to Siberia, of course.


This thing looks like something constructed a period film, but in fact is the real, Soviet deal.

Because I have a rather weak stomach, I can only take so much of gut wrenching images of Siberian labor camps, and so I sought refuge at the gift shop. If Kashubian kitsch is your thing, you’ll be in heaven. I know I was. I bought two t-shirts, one for me, and one for Mister in Japan, and seriously contemplated purchasing a complete folk costume, embroidered skirts and all. (Hey, Mr. could wear a kimono and I – a Kashubian folk outfit for our shrine ceremony, THAT would be a show to remember!) However, I eventually came to my senses and left the shop with my credit rating more or less intact – hand embroidered folk dresses don’t come cheap, even in Poland.

What else? There’s the Guinness Book of Records listed board – the longest in the world, and more cute houses to look at. There’s even a structure which looks suspiciously like a tserkva (in Ukrainian, means “Eastern Orthodox church”) but since there is a building of the Polish-Ukrainian Friendship Association on the museum’s premises, it’s highly possible they have a wooden Ukrainian church there, too.

The whole place closes at 7PM, though the bakery closes much earlier – around 4PM, or whenever they run out of bread, so don’t assume you can buy a loaf on your way out.

Around the museum there is a lovely lake, and from what I’m seeing, the owners of CEPR (which, incidentally, even though technically an open-air museum, is also a private enterprise) are busy constructing something what looks like a fancy hotel and convention center. So, if you’re thinking to head that way, do it before this monstrosity becomes operational.

All in all, I liked it there. It’s tacky, it’s kitschy, it’s schmaltzy (in more ways than one) but it’s fun. I liked it so much that even though I am leaving Poland next week, I am seriously considering a quick return visit before my departure, even if only for the bread.

Moi in the window

And good times were had by all!

Friday, June 5, 2009

How to Look Like an Idiot in One Easy Step

It all began a few years ago when we were invited to a very formal party to honor the emperor’s birthday. My husband naturally assumed that since formal attire was required, I should wear a formal kimono. He talked to his mother and she with great pleasure selected and purchased a suitably fancy kimono and all the necessary paraphernalia. She packed it all up and shipped it half way around the world to us. I didn’t know it at the time, but the whole outfit had cost as much money as a new car. A small Japanese car, but still. It was a truckload of cash.

The day of the party came and I refused to wear my very festive kimono opting instead for a formal European-style dress. I know that my husband was disappointed and hurt, but all he said was “as you wish.”

I tried to explain the motives behind this decision, and while at first he was reluctant to see the issue from my point of view, after the party he finally understood what I meant.

And what I mean was respect. Respect towards the Japanese culture, tradition and even the emperor, because it was his birthday after all. As a foreign woman I had (and still have) no business parading around in a kimono at formal, strictly-Japanese functions. It’s not my culture and I’d look as ridiculous wearing a kimono among the Japanese as my husband would look wearing an Indian head dress at a Navajo convention.

My husband finally realized how peculiar the kimono issue could be when at the function we saw a western woman dressed in a kimono. To say that she looked ridiculous would be a most gentle of understatements. She was a joke of the party, yet she herself was completely unaware of the unintentional amusement her appearance was providing. It was sad, to say the least, and I was glad I stuck by my guns and chose to wear a formal gown.

I am not against foreigners wearing other cultures’ traditional clothing. I actually happen to like kimonos very much. And saris. And kiras. And even native American head dresses. But there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s one thing to put on a kimono when getting married to a Japanese national, or a sari when marrying an Indian. That’s proper, respectful and expected. And it pleases the in-laws, and we all know how important THAT is.

Yet it’s another thing to put on a kimono and blabber about how much you love and admire the Japanese culture when attending a formal celebration at a Japanese diplomatic mission abroad. If you loved and admired this culture so much, you should have made an effort to understand it a little better and used your common sense to figure out the difference between a formal occasion and a cosplay convention. Because let’s face it, that’s what it was – cosplay.

Say what you want about your “deep understanding” of Shinto, if you’re a non-Japanese, your statement will sound ridiculous to a native Japanese.

Why am I writing about it today?

I have been asked to attend a “Shinto” wedding in Poland. The wedding is as Shinto as I am a native Japanese – two Polish manga fans decided to embrace the Japanese culture and thought it would be a grand idea to get married the Japanese way.
They wouldn’t listen to me when I explained that most Japanese brides prefer western style ceremonies conducted by actors playing priests. At least those Japanese brides know it’s all cosplay and don’t claim they do it to “immerse” themselves in American wedding traditions, because they love the American pop culture so much.

The Polish couple wanted me to wear a kimono and perform the traditional tea ceremony as part of their wedding festivities. I declined the invitation. I offered my brand new and never used tea ceremony set as a wedding gift and explained that sadly, I wouldn’t be able to attend the wedding itself. My proposed gift was met with a sneer and the next thing I heard through the internet grapevine was that I was a stuck up pseudo-Jap and an even more stuck up pseudo-Pole.

Oh well… it takes all kinds is my response.

And to that Polish manga otaku couple, see how ridiculous this looks:

White couple 4a

Cosplay at its most pathetic - two gaijins in ill-fitting kimonos at Futarasan in Nikko.

White couple 3a

While others are praying, they are arguing.

I think this couple eventually saw the absurdity of this situation and disappeared in a huff.

“That was really sad,” my husband said. And I think he finally understood what I meant all those years ago.

“And you look MUCH better in a kimono too,” he added. And then, “hey, should we have a shrine ceremony? Grandmother would be so pleased.”

Ah, he knows how to manipulate me, I’d do anything to please Grandmother.

PS.  Expateek has simply impeccable timing and while I was  preparing this post, she send me this:


asian or oriental tutor needed today

This evening asap i need a asian or oreintal person to teach me the asian language. I pay $10 an hour. Send me your contact information and i will call you.

Kaitlin says, “I can’t pick a favorite part: The poster’s need to clarify a difference between Asian and Oriental (or oreintal, I don’t know, maybe he pronounces it differently), needing to know THE asian language, needing to learn the language in ONE night, or pondering over what the poster could possibly need it for.”

Chris also sent this one in, with a theory: he says, “Anything to book that Flower Drum Song audition, right?”

I’m sure it will only take a few hours to master Asian. After all, something like eight billion people speak it — how hard could it be?

From You Suck at Craiglist.

Thanks expateek!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Smile, You're in Hel

Yes, now with only one “L” as a cost-cutting measure. Because of the economic crisis we need to implement savings where we can. And Hel (now with only one “L”) is not recession-proof either, you know? (Or maybe it is, the upcoming summer season will show.)

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Hel – there’s a photograph circulating on the internet of a purported timetable of a Hel-bound bus, number 666 of course. Don’t believe it, it’s ‘shopped. Actually, it’s bus number 654 that serves Hel and its environs. The very “clever” English speaker who took and ‘shopped that photo apparently forgot that some Poles might actually LIVE in Hel and use that bus on a daily basis. And even understand English (yes, a totally novel and unthinkable concept, I know). Which just proves once again that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.

So, the photo is fake but the town is very much real. And people really live there. And even more people visit it every year, though mainly in the summer. And that’s when Hel turns into hell for real.

Oh, yes, there’s a town called Hel in Poland. It’s at the very end (or beginning – it all depends on whether you’re in Sweden or Slovakia) of this lovely country. And since most people can’t agree whether it’s the end or the beginning, let’s settle on a “tip” instead. Because that’s exactly what Hel is – a tiny tip of land jutting out into the sea. The sea in question being the Baltic, of course. And the moron who wrote a Been There blog entry for The Guardian calling this puny oversized inland lake “the Baltic Ocean” was wrong. Which just proves once again that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.

But where were we? Oh yes, Hel. It’s a lovely place. Really. This you can believe.

Lighthouse 2
The lighthouse in Hel, originally constructed in 1827, rebuilt to its current form in 1942

Last Saturday I went there myself to see what the fuss was all about. And while I’m still not sure what’s so special about it, I must agree that Hel is a very fine place indeed. It’s just different than the rest of Poland (though admittedly, I’m no expert on the subject here), and not just because it’s surrounded by the Baltic sea on three sides. The fourth side is a narrow strip of mostly sand connecting it with the mainland. And the strip is truly narrow, but not as narrow as the moron in The Guardian had claimed. It’s actually 147 meters wide at its narrowest point. How do I know it? I GPSed it. So there. (And yes, I do have OCD, OK?)

End of poland

The very end (or beginning) of Poland. This area used to be off limits during the Cold War

What else? Hel is the name of both the peninsula and the town at its tip. As recently as the 17th century the peninsula used to be a string of islands. And the tip was a restricted area well into the late 80s. Back then (and I mean the 80s here, not the 17th century) you could visit it on a hydrofoil from Tri-city, but driving in required special permits. Why was that? Almost the entire peninsula was one huge army/navy base. After the second world war most native Kashubians were either “politely invited” to relocate elsewhere or equally “politely invited” to work for the armed forces. And since with all the military activity fishing was no longer a viable option, people either accepted the invitation to move to the mainland or crossed over to the dark side.

These days the former military installations are open to the public and you can take photos next to strategically positioned tanks or read multi-lingual information boards about fallout shelters in the woods (maintained and on standby until 1985 or so) or air defense whatnots (hey, I’m a girl, I don’t know about these things) which were fully operational until the very end of the Cold War.


You could actually go inside and investigate, but since I was wearing fashionable shoes I didn't want to get them all mucked up in the sand.

Some parts of the peninsula are still fenced off with barbed wire with ominous-looking signs “Military Area - Keep Out”. Though in one spot there was a gap in the fence with a steady stream of hikers going back and forth. See? These days even the military knows you can’t mess with nature loving, tree hugging, day pack carrying families on their weekend hikes.

And if hiking’s not your thing (definitely not my thing either) then there’s a bike path for your convenience. You can bike it all the way from Wladyslawowo to the very end of the peninsula. But because biking’s not my thing either, I chose to drive.

Old style house

A typical old style house

The drive is lovely, however once in Hel, you’re presented with another problem. Where in hell are you supposed to park? Unfortunately, this is a common problem in areas surrounded by water on three (or four) sides. The fact that the space is very much finite makes the already existing parking lots ridiculously expensive. And the already existing parking lots are all you’re gonna get. Unfortunately, this is not Asia where they can dump trash into the ocean to build artificial parking lot islands. So if paying 4 PLN an hour for parking during the high season is your idea of fun, then by all means, you can drive to Hel, no problem.*

Hel station 2

Or you can take the train and this would be your final destination

Luckily, the season hasn’t started yet, and what I saw last weekend was a charming, sleepy town with a tacky seaside (dreadful), a museum (don’t know if it’s worth a visit, it seemed closed when we were there), a lighthouse (worth the climb, really, the little booklet about its history is worth buying too, 8 PLN, just ignore the funky language and obvious copyright infringements), two beaches (one seemed to smell a bit), a place to admire and study the Baltic seals (Fokarium, haven’t been there) and more fried fish joints than you can shake a stick at (we tried two, both were good).


A branch of the Polish Maritime Museum, this one has to do with fisheries and stuff. Yum!

A couple of words about the Fokarium. They have a summer volunteer program. And yes, it’s free. They provide accommodation but not food. And unfortunately, you have to speak some Polish. If you’re interested, just google it yourself, or email me, OK?

Beach end

Land's end

One thing that disappointed me about Hel was the lack of bilingual (Kashubian) signs. There were such signs in other villages on the peninsula, and it’s a pity that for whatever reason they couldn’t be found in Hel itself. I’m a fan of all things Kashubian, and for a place as iconicly Kashubian as Hel, this seems to be a serious oversight.


Signs in Kashubian elsewhere on the peninsula

What else? If you feel the urge to stay in Hel overnight, during the season you might have a problem. Even though almost every private house has a sign outside saying “pokoje, rooms, zimmer,” the natives say everything books up well in advance.


I see that renting out during the summer season pays well.

Oh yes, the natives! I’m no expert, but they must be among some of the most laid back, easy going people in all of Poland. Smiling, friendly, helpful, eager to please, sell, serve and then sell some more. I guess living in one of the most beautiful areas of the country does that to you. I’d be smiling all day too, if I lived in Hel. It’s either that, all this hiking and breathing the clean sea-scented air, or they grow some strong stuff in those woods of theirs. All those “Military Area” and “Keep Out” signs? Yeah, right…


Even a random guy waiting for the train was happy to sing a folk song. Or is it simply a Pavlovian instinct when a Hel native has a camera pointed at him? Not sure.

* To avoid this problem take a hydrofoil from Tri-city.