Friday, July 15, 2005

Wiring is wiring, right?

Well, that's what I would have thought.

The old, bad, aluminum wires should come out, and be replaced with shiny new copper, which would accommodate all the amps needed to run our American plethora of appliances. But those two Polish electricians, with whom we could not communicate, did not take any old wires out. They left them where they were (wherever that was), and they are still there.

What they did was begin to chisel channels in the plaster. This was part of our early education about the difference between American house construction and Polish. Americans build homes with wooden frames and drywall. The walls are not very thick, and they are hollow, unless they are filled with some kind of insulation.

Polish walls begin with a core of concrete blocks. Bricks may be laid up on one or both sides of the concrete core. Then plaster--real, gooey, thick plaster--has to be smoothed over the bricks to make a smooth wall surface. There is no drywall in sight. So where do the wires go in these solid walls? Well, they string them into place before the plaster goes on, and then just cover them up. Good-bye, wires. They will never be seen again.

If you have to rewire a room (or an entire apartment), you simply dig deep channels into the wall. And up and over to the ceiling light fixtures. And down and over to every outlet. And then you make connections to the junction "boxes" that punctuate the walls. This is a lot of chiseling and plaster dust. It takes many, many feet (meters!) of wire for an apartment, and channels must be prepared for all of them. It is noisy, and dusty. Powdered plaster begins to cover everything within a one-kilometer radius, which certainly includes every corner of the unfortunate apartment. And I do mean every nook and cranny, including those "protected" by closet doors or cabinets.

After the channels are done, new wires are tucked into them, and buckets of fresh plaster are mixed to bury them forever--just like the old wires. Lines of freshly-dried plaster all over the walls and ceilings of every room are a nice complement to the plaster dust which resists every attempt to clean it up. So, after the wiring is done, and the electricians are finally gone, you still have to allow for several days of chaos while you paint. (But only after the plaster is really dry!)

I'm sure we learned some valuable lessons from this experience, which is virtually the first thing I remember about living in Poland. I'm sure it distracted us, at the time, from other culture shocks that might have unsettled us. But by the time the last dust-pan full of plaster dust was carried away, and the ugly plaster lines were concealed by paint, the rest of life in Poland had become sort of normal.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My current location (not Krakow) happens to be in the Florida panhandle--the place with magnetic attraction for fearsome hurricanes like Ivan and Dennis. We had planned to travel out of town the weekend that Dennis hit, anyway, and we extended our stay a couple of days to avoid the discomforts of living without electricity. The power had been restored by the time we pulled into the driveway, so we did not have to endure July temperatures without the blessed respite of air conditioning. (I've often wondered what possessed settlers to settle here before AC was invented. I wouldn't have.)

But the whole situation reminded of something that happened virtually days after we first arrived in Poland, also in July, in 1997. We moved into a Stalin-era "block"--one of those concrete boxes broken up into hundreds of little flats. We set up house, American style. We purchased a washer and a dryer (a rare thing in Europe). We used transformers, and set up the computer and printer. We ran the radio, toaster, hair-dryer, computer, washer, dryer, electric lights, and probably a few other things, like any normal 20th-century family.

What we didn't know (until it was much, much too late) was that the wiring in our Stalin-era flat was not equipped to handle the electric load of an American family in the 1990's. The wiring wasn't even all copper--some of it was aluminum. So, within about two weeks of arriving on Polish soil, we completely destroyed the wiring in our apartment, requiring that the entire place be re-wired.

This definitely ranks as one of the most uncomfortable experiences I can remember. We were without power for about three weeks, although I think that were able to give us temporary power in one room, so we could have lights in the evening. Our co-workers made ice and brought it to us via tram (no one had a car at that time), so we could keep a few things cool in an ice chest. Even though it was July, no one in Poland uses air conditioning anyway, so we didn't miss that.

It took a long time for the apartment to be re-wired, and we had two Polish workers in our home all day, every day, when we were unable to communicate beyond saying "hello" and "coffee?" or "tea?"

What I really wanted to blog about was the extraordinary difference between electrical wiring in Poland and in America, but this has gotten long enough that I think I'll save it for next time.

In the meantime, I am thankful that I have power to run the air-conditioning and the computer--both of which feel essential right now. I wouldn't have made a good settler.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

I have been encouraged to begin writing here, even though I am not presently in Krakow. It seems kind of odd to be celebrating the 4th of July in America, as an American, and be homesick for a foreign country, but what can I say? My home is in Krakow, and I'm just visiting here. That's the way it feels. Kind of like moving back with your parents after you've grown up and moved out. It's still home...but it's not the same.

Since my kids don't get to experience a "real" 4th of July when we're in Poland, we made a big deal of it this year. They especially enjoyed the fireworks display, which was spectacular, and set to music, and pretty much a heart-stopping, ear-splitting, eye-popping half hour of explosive entertainment. The baby (C) was great. She loves noise, and never so much as flinched.

But my thoughts can't help but go back to last year, when we celebrated the 4th in Krakow with a couple of other American families. We packed a picnic supper--including genuine Polish sausage, to be cooked on a grill, and hiked about 2 blocks from home to picnic beside the Vistula (Wislwa in Polish) River. It was a terrific location, and we had purchased some great no-way-would-these-be-legal-in-the-US fireworks to celebrate. Fireworks look terrific when you set them off above a river. We had our picnic, and waited for the sun to set and darkness to set in. Unfortunately, it was freezing. After the sun went down, it got colder and colder. We built a fire and huddled around it, sending the kids after sticks and wooden debris for fuel. When it was finally dark enough (and darkness comes late when you are so far north), we enjoyed a great home-made fireworks show. All husbands present were pyromanics, but are there any other kind? And so we wished America a happy birthday from 5,000 miles away.

And as soon as it was over, we hurried home where it wouldn't be quite so cold. It was a great 4th, and I have a feeling I'm going to remember it a long longer than I will remember the terrific fireworks I saw last night.