Restauracja Stylowa is anything but a “stylish restaurant,” but it’s the only place to grab a bit in the suburban district of Nowa Huta, just outside Krakow, Poland. I think the owners had opened the place in the 1980s, closed it, and reopened it for our group in 2008 – the interior matched something that might be found on the set of Dallas. Intricately cut mirrored panels, lavender and mint green painted walls, plastic tablecloths, plastic ferns and gaudy gold lame curtains evoked within me a time when Communist big wigs sat around and tried to figure out how they could hold their precious government together in the midst of revolution.
We are the only ones in the place. Our waiter speaks no English. We speak no Polish, but Czech is very similar, and we get by. They don’t have enough food for all of us, so only some people can get pirogis, only some people can get salad. Argentinian steak is listed on the menu, but I doubt it is even available, much less actually from Argentina.
Our waiter places a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the middle of our table. “If you rub his head, he will bring you good luck.” Sort of like a skinnier, more volatile version of Buddha, I suppose. I rub his head furiously while downing my glass of beer. Why not? I need all the luck I can get. In two month’s time, I return to the United States, to an unknown future.
Lenin, hear me out on this.
Yeah it was ridiculous, riding in a 48-passenger coach bus containing only 10 people, but when was an opportunity like that ever going to come along again?
There’s nothing like swerving through the hills of Slovakia en route from a glorious few days in Poland, watching the light cascade through the trees, their leaves a multicolored, Eastern European fall. Passing terra-cotta roofed chalets and wondering, “what do these people do? Where do they go to school? Is there a cinema near by?” – it’s a completely different world.
We passed so many castles, I’m pretty sure that most of them were abandoned over time and left for people to explore. “What are you doing today?” “Oh, just fucking around at the castle on the cliff.” “Cool, can I come with?” What a bad ass childhood.
The hospoda we stopped at for lunch was something out of a fairytale. A veritable log cabin, Slavic in style, with notched-wood ribs and decorative cut-outs, welcomed our motion-sick brigade. Inside was chock full of rustic knick-knacks – snow shoes, antlers, framed embroidered handkerchiefs…if this wasn’t Slovakia, I’d have assumed they were staged. But because it was Slovakia, I knew they were authentic.
I ordered smazeny syr s hranolky. Only in Central Europe is fried cheese and french fries considered part of a balanced diet.
Kofola? A must.
Sure, most of us were bus sick, some of us threw up and no one really ate lunch.
Despite all of that, I still consider that day to be beautiful.
None of us had realized that it was the Fourth of July. Days in Ghana sort of blur together. Schedules don’t really exist. Calendars weren’t of use to the people we lived and worked with. If a day or event was important, they just new when it would occur.
I received a beat-up package about a week before from my mother. She was always good about sending me little cards and things while I was away in other countries. Smart woman, she knew to ship them prior to my leaving so they would get there on time.
This package contained Independence Day themed goodies – patriotic nail stickers and temporary tattoos, American flag pencils, playing cards, sucker candies and Pop Rocks. Everything was red, white and blue. I handed out the pencils to some of the village kids I didn’t know that well. But the stickers, I gave to the special ones.
I placed a silver star on Nora’s cheek. She adored it.
Alfred and Dennis wanted one too. They put a flag on my nose. Ironic, being that I’d do anything to be an ex-patriot.
But the Pop Rocks took the cake.
“How do you eat them?” Nora asked.
“Here, I’ll put some in your hand,” I began. “Then you just put them in your mouth and wait.”
“And wait?” Alfred asked.
Their mouths gaped open at the same time. The area was filled with the crackling sounds of the explosive candies in the parched mouths of the village children. It was so new and foreign to them, I couldn’t imagine what was going on in their heads. But they all smiled and laughed.
It was cool to watch.
Our table was set when we returned from the village. Audrey had taken time out to cook us “something special” for the Fourth of July. I honestly had no idea what it could be, and at first I didn’t really care – Audrey showed very little interest in Ghana and its people and I couldn’t see her whipping up some special ethnic feast. But maybe she’d surprise me.
“First, I found these hot dogs and hamburger meat at the market,” she pointed to a plate of shiny, slim meat sticks and mottled-looking browned beef. “They came from a can, but I think they’ll taste fine. There’s also ketchup that I picked up in Accra last week.”
We began to smile.
“Then, I found some actual potatoes at the market, and made some mashed potatoes,” she went on.
“I also made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but here’s the real treat…” she opened up our stock pot to reveal a bright orange culmination of noodles and powdered cheese.
“Macaroni and cheese!”
We all laughed and screamed. None of us had seen familiar foods like this for over a month.
“And then there’s also Kool-Aid packets for you guys!”
More shouts of joy. Audrey had really pulled it off.
She later revealed that the Kraft macaroni and cheese and Kool-Aid packets had been brought from home. “I wasn’t sure how the food was going to be here,” she explained. “I figured I’d bring some easily packaged things, just in case I got homesick.”
We later had the village boys bring us back a box of celebratory booze. Exploitation, I know.
But maybe you’ll feel better knowing it was only Smirnoff Ice.
I’d never been to Harlem until Dana had decided to bunk there during an improv festival in New York City. We were volunteering there, and my shift was at 7:00am. I decided to stay the night with her because waking up and taking the train at 6:30am is a lot easier than waking up at 5:00am to catch a train from Long Island at 6:00am that would probably get me there late anyway.
Harlem is a place where people say you’ll get stabbed for looking at the sidewalk too long. This is white-person speak for “multi-ethnic.” At first I was hesitant to head beyond Columbia University, but then I thought to myself “Honestly, this is New York City, not a slum. There are lights and people everywhere. If I keep my wits about me, I should be fine.”
And it was true – everything was fine. I found Dana’s guesthouse right near the subway, and I was pleasantly surprised – it was an old, turn-of-the-century Brownstone divided into several rooms. Her own lodging had a little kitchenette and a bathroom, and luxurious furnishings, including a settee and a chandelier. I wanted to stay for longer just so that I could take advantage of the spiral staircase, whose stained-class skylight was something to look up to.
I’m not a very politically active person. I have never voted in my entire life. Politics is just too big of a commitment for me; I will state my educated views, but that’s about it. Yet, if there is an opportunity for me to extend my civic duty that doesn’t require too much effort on my part, sure, I’ll play the patriot.
Proposition 8 was a hot button issue in South Carolina the fall of 2007. Charleston is one of the more liberal cities in the state, and the university-town atmosphere fueled a debate of “to vote or not to vote” for this issue. I was a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the time – my coworker was the moderator, my best friend had just come out to me. It just felt like the right group to join.
Members of the GSA were getting ready to canvas the city, pass out buttons, fliers, etc. One of the things they provided as a passive aggressive approach to gaining voter approval was a plastic sign you could pitch on your front lawn or place in your window. I picked one up for my apartment. There. I did my part.
Walking home from the meeting, sign clenched within my armpit, I passed a familiar College of Charleston character. He was of the hippie persuasion, had an odd name – like Allister or Timothy, or something. He was one of those people that you see around campus and can recognize, mostly because he doesn’t fit in with the majority of WASPy attendants CofC is known for.
Charlemagne, or whatever his name was, had wiry brown hair and an extensive beard set into a ponytail with an elastic hair tie. He wore a stained brown shirt, green cargo pants, and Birkenstocks. He called out to me.
“Hey,” he began. “Where do you think you’re going with that sign?”
I was puzzled. I had actually just assumed that Patricio was a hippie and upheld liberal values. Was he a secret conservative in disguise? I became defensive.
“I’m taking it back to my house,” I bluntly replied. If he was going to start shit with me for befriending gays, this was going to get ugly.
“And what do you plan on doing with it?” his words were like a lawyer’s – threatening, gruff and intimidating.
“I’m going to put it on my front lawn so that people can read the message!” I shot back. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. My heart beat at a rapid pace. If this Jet was hunting for a battle of cultural sensitivities, he was rumbling with the wrong Shark.
Ulysses was taken aback, as though someone had pushed or startled him. I braced myself for the cat-call.
Caught unawares, he simply replied, “Oh.”
“Well that’s great then,” he threw a fist into the air. “Thanks for spreading the word!”
My blood pressure slowed, and I smiled at him. “No problem,” and we carried on, walking in opposite directions.
Lancelot had judged me because I wore a polo shirt with Bermuda shorts and looked like the conservative sorori-whores that shared the same block as me. He wouldn’t put it past those types to dispose of such a sign promoting values they did not share. He was just keeping trying to keep the peace.
What Hugo – actually, I think that may have been his name, Hugo – what Hugo apparently did not remember was that three years prior, I had seen him naked. He was a nude model for one of my studio art classes. But I suppose he didn’t recognize me without my charcoals.