Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year

To all (six?) of my regular blog readers, as well as anyone stopping by while googling for Polish Christmas carols, Nora Waln, walnut cake recipes or where to find good Mexican food in Poland (nowhere)--


I shall, of course, enter 2007 six hours earlier than I entered 2006. My year is short by six hours, but I suppose that makes up for the fact I must have had six extra hours in 2006, as I had to wait six hours longer than I did in 2005. I really feel sorry for people who live and travel across the international date line. What would you do if you had six extra hours in your year?

Really fantastic and probably dangerous and certainly illegal (in the US states I've lived in) fireworks are perfectly legal and obtainable here, and this is the time of year to play with them. As the 4th of July in Poland is merely a date on the calendar, between the 3rd and 5th of July, there is no occasion for fireworks at that time. New Year's Eve is the event. Fireworks are on sale everywhere and you can stock up on rockets, firecrackers, fountains (volcanos, more like), and batteries that shoot off series of fireworks, as well as the more mundane sparklers and roman candles.

The occasional but frequent sound of these has been going on for hours (it's 10:58 pm at this moment), but it's nothing compared to what will happen at midnight. It will sound as if Krakow is a battle zone, with street fighting, shelling, and artillery fire in every direction. The "battle" will go on for some 45 minutes, at least, almost unabated, until thousands upon thousands of fireworks have been consumed in honor of the advent of 2007. We will contribute our small share.

Thousands of people will gather on the square in the center of the city tonight for music and celebration, and fireworks at midnight. I heard a joke last year that the city of Krakow made an ordinance forbidding glass bottles to be taken onto the square on New Year's Eve, and the next day, the sanitation department only had to sweep up four tons of glass. Although I never plan to join the party on the square, here's picture from last year:

Happy New Year! and Szczęśćliwego Nowego Roku!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Lure of the List

All my life, I've thought it would be fun and interesting to keep a list of the books I've read.

All my life, the procrastinating side of me has kept me from acting on that idea.

Until 2006, when I began blogging in earnest.

The reading from January and February didn't make the list, because I was still in the States then, and not keeping track. I know I did some of my Jane Austen rereading then, plus probably one or two of the books from Orson Scott Card's Ender series. And I'm sure I read Jane and the Man of the Cloth during that time, by Stephanie Barron, featuring Jane Austen as a solver of mysteries. But that's all I can remember, and I'm not counting any of those books. I'm only counting the ten months during which I kept fairly accurate lists and posted them on this blog.

So, during the last 10 months of 2006 I read 67 books. That number shocked me a bit. I wouldn't have guessed a number so high, especially as I know there were weeks of busyness during which I read very little. I suppose I make up for it during the times I sit down and polish off a novel in one sitting or two. (I have mentioned that I read very fast.)

Of those 67 books, only 16 were non fiction, which means I read 51 works of fiction.

33 literary novels

10 mysteries

7 science fiction or fantasy novels

1 book in a foreign language

My nonfiction books fit into just a few categories:

6 books on education (2 of which were collections of essays)

8 books of letters or biographies

2 books about science topics

Of the total 67 books on my list, 18 were rereads.

This list does not include the odd short story read here and there, a chapter or two reread from books I love but did not reread in entirety, nor the internet texts that I read, because I didn't keep track of them.

This list also does not include books that I read aloud with the children as part of our homeschooling endeavors, which included things like Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, and Hurry, Spring! by Sterling North.

As I looked over the list of books I've read for the year, a few titles and authors stood out as noteworthy. Jane Austen is my favorite author to reread (always) and Chaim Potok was my favorite "new-to-me" author for this year. My least-favorite book for the year was Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. I know, I know--it's classic, well-written, and memorable. I didn't like it. This will not affect my general plan to read one new novel by Dickens each year. My most ambitious read was undoubtedly the still unfinished War and Peace, which I hope to retire from the "current reading" pile very soon. I really can't choose just one that was my overall favorite for the year, but I'll choose five that I think were top-notch and will probably be reread in the future.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Teacher in American by Jacques Barzun

The Bible and the task of teaching by David I. Smith and John Shortt

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff

And two more favorites for good measure:

House of Exile by Nora Waln and Sandition by Jane Austen and Another Lady

I can't help but notice that, although my nonfiction reading made up less then 20% of my yearly reading, 50% percent of the best books I read were nonfiction. Which begs the question, why am I reading so much fiction when I like nonfiction so much? The answer is that nonfiction is harder to read, and although I find it enjoyable as well as profitable, it takes effort. I don't always have the energy to put effort into reading. Much of my reading is simply for pleasure and entertainment. In the long run, I'm so much happier to have read something substantial, but if I'm looking for relaxation and diversion...bring on a comfy reread or a mystery, or something suitably escapist in nature.

I must keep track of this post and compare it to the list of books I read in 2007. Assuming of course, that I keep such a list. But that's one of things I like best about this blog--writing and sharing about the books I read.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Relax and Read

Of course I was terribly busy in December, but that doesn't usually stop me from squeezing in some reading, although it does hinder serious reading. Fun reading isn't stopped by much.

Not long ago, the Deputy Headmistress of The Common Room recommended Ngaio Marsh as a particularly good mystery author. Now, I have seen books by this author in the library, but that has been the extent of my acquaintance. I haven't read any "new to me" mystery writers for a long time, contenting myself with Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, and for very light reading, Diane Mott Davidson and Lillian Braun (though I'm so discontented with their most recent books I won't be bothering with anything new in those quarters).

I've been in need of fresh to speak. The library here in Krakow has several books by Ngaio Marsh, and I chose one at random--Final Curtain. I never doubted the DHM, of course, but it was highly gratifying to read such a good mystery. The characters were well done, in spite of the fact that there were so many of them (with poor writing, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between too many mediocre characters). I read the book over several evenings, and I suppose it is commentary enough to say...I'm looking forward to reading more mysteries by the same author.

There's nothing like a good murder mystery to take your mind off of everything else for a while. And this is a good one!

Toddler Tales from the Dark Side

They're so cute at that age.

I agree. Most of the time, I agree.

But there are those other times.

Mercifully, I don't think I can remember everything that C. got into during the holidays. She only hurled her favorite stuffed animal into the Christmas tree once, and it didn't break anything. We caught her with the food coloring before she recolored the dining room floor (again). Nobody minded that she helped open their presents before they got to them.

But then, there was the day I was baking my once-a-year Christmas breakfast treat: cream cheese danish. My recipe makes four loaves of danish, and I was doubling it so I'd have plenty to give away. The dough has to rise in the refrigerator overnight, and it was ready to go. I mixed up an enormous bowl of the sweetened raw-egg-and-cream-cheese filling and began to roll out the dough. I'd probably rolled and shaped a couple of loaves when C. trotted into the kitchen to see what I doing and grabbed the bowl of sticky goo, knocking it from the counter to the floor. We shall draw the curtain on subsequent events, but I will say that we still had cream cheese danish for Christmas breakfast.

In all the excitement and bustle, C. took a few knocks during the holidays. Christmas Eve morning, she was sporting two scabby scratches on her forehead and a bruise on her chin. Despite my objections, Krakovian made her portrait along with the rest of the kids. "Oh well," I thought, "That's what Photoshop is for." I had wanted to wait a couple of days until the scratches healed, but it's just as well that we didn't. Rather than looking better in a few days, she looked worse after pulling the keyboard shelf off the computer desk. The corner gashed her eyebrow, grazed her eyelid, and bruised her cheek. There was a lot of blood, but no stitches were needed.

It was two hours before the adrenaline subsided in my bloodstream, though.

If they weren't so cute at that age, I don't think we'd survive.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

Nathan Coulter is my third book in the "From the Stacks" challenge. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, but haven't had time to write any thoughtful comments on the book.

For months now, I've been wanting to read something by Wendell Berry, as his writing came highly recommended from a number of sources I respect. This particular novel was not specifically mentioned, but beggars cannot be choosers. I found a book of "Three Short Novels" by Wendell Berry at Massolit and snatched it up. The book includes Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. Although the novel I read is actually the one that introduces the town of Port William and its inhabitants, launching a series of books set in that Kentucky locale, I can't help feeling that this might not have been the best choice for me to begin with.

The overwhelming theme of Nathan Coulter is death. The story begins with a death and ends with a death, and any number of things--fish, raccoons, and people--die in the intervening chapters. I wasn't expecting that, so the effect of the book, rather than being the idyllic rural story I expected, or even sharply intellectual, as I also expected, was similar to jumping into the shower only to find the water running cold. It's much to late to do anything about it, except react instinctively.

This book explores various responses to the death of loved ones, as well as different perspectives on the expectation of death that everyone must face. Death may be welcomed, feared, accepted or unexpected.

There is more to the book than death, of course, and I'm afraid I have to say honestly that I don't think I really "got" the message the author was trying to convey. I was too busy reacting. I now have to decide whether to reread Nathan Coulter before going on with the next two in the volume, or whether I should just go ahead, (perhaps with lowered or at least altered expectations) and continue reading. I have plenty of time to decide, as whichever course I pursue, I have a lot of other reading taking precedence over Wendell Berry right now.

Two books left in my challenge, which is supposed to be completed by January 30th--War and Peace (about 4/5 finished, but that still leaves over 300 pages to go) and W Pustyni i w Puszczy, my Polish book. Is it even possible?

Christmas Past

I know that Christmas is "officially" over, but since I didn't have time to blog about Christmas activities at the time, I'm going to steal these few days before the new year begins to squeeze in some of my Christmas fun, and relive it for myself before the season fades entirely away.

I mentioned some time ago that I was working on Christmas presents, and I think I can safely say that I probably should have either A) worked on these more consistently ahead of time or B) had an alternative plan. It all seemed so simple when I conceived the idea. I purchased inexpensive pillow forms from Ikea, and planned to crochet mats (doilies) which I would stitch onto purchased remnants of material, which I would then sew into simple cushion-covers. Nothing to it. I crochet quickly, and the sewing requirements were simple enough not to task my mediocre skills with the new machine.

I failed to realize how time-intensive the hand-stitching would be. It takes a long time to stitch a crocheted mat neatly onto material, keeping it properly shaped and blocked. I also failed to work on the project (which I begin in October!) as consistently as I should have, so naturally I found myself in a last-minute time crunch, needing to finish these cushions.

I stayed up late and spent hours and hours crocheting and hand-stitching. The machine-stitching, as I anticipated, took only a couple of hours one evening, but it couldn't be done until everything else was finished.

Fortunately for me, not long ago, I learned about Librivox. This website has free audiobooks to download and listen to. The books are in the public domain, and the readers have donated their time and efforts to the project. I hadn't really taken the time to explore the idea before, but it was a wonderful blessing to have something to listen to while I worked. I crocheted and stitched my way through Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, The Man Who Knew Too Much by G.K. Chesterton, and Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster.

Chapter by chapter I downloaded them, and instead of hating what I was doing because it was so last-minute and frustrating, I enjoyed what I was doing and relaxed. Audiobooks are no substitute for actual reading (for me), but they are a tremendous resource for times when your ears and mind are free enough, but you can't be looking at a book--during long car trips, on the treadmill, or doing handicrafts.

And I didn't get everything finished. The brown cushion is one-half of a pair, like the gray cushions, but I gave it anyway, explaining that it was half of a Christmas present. I also have a nearly-finished table mat in an unusual shape that turned out to be more ambitious than I thought. The recipients are still anticipating it. That means I'll be able to start another audio book while I finish up the the last rounds of the mat and stitch another doily onto its cushion cover...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bah, humbug?

Where is she? Why hasn't she been posting to her blog? Isn't anything of interest taking place? Has she read no books, baked no Christmas cookies, trimmed no tree, made no gifts, wrapped no presents? Has she seen nothing of interest? Heard no Christmas carols?

She has done all these things, and more, and therefore she has not had time nor energy to blog about it.

Please resume your regularly scheduled Christmas activities and bask in the secure knowledge that Krakovianka, absentee blogger, will soon return (perhaps this very week) and tell you about the books she is reading, Polish Christmas festivities, a fabulous Ladies' Tea, and perhaps, if you are very fortunate, the number of mishaps perpetrated by the intrepid C., toddler extraordinaire.

Monday, December 11, 2006

On my desk

(That's where I keep the books I'm currently reading, or the books I want to read soon, or the books that the two-year-old took off the shelves and someone plopped on my desk.)

I've made it a practice for the last five or six years to read one novel by Charles Dickens each year. I try to read novels I have not read before, but if I was a teenager the last time I read it, I count it as a new book. Over the past few years I've read David Copperfield, HardTimes, Great Expectations, and Dombey and Son. One year I read Our Mutual Friend on my computer screen after downloading the text from Gutenberg. My Dickens for 2006 was A Tale of Two Cities, and I've already got The Pickwick Papers on the shelf for 2007.

Sometime this year, I realized that I'd like to do the same thing with William Makepeace Thackeray--read one new novel each year. The difficulty is that, although Thackery was as prolific as Dickens, his books have not retained the same level of popularity and are much harder to come by. I've read Vanity Fair (of course) more than once, and The Rose and the Ring which is more of a children's story, as well as Pendennis. And that's it. I want to read more, and so I was pleased to find The History of Henry Esmond at the library recently.

I'm about halfway through the book so far, and one thing that strikes me is the difference in tone. I'm used to Thackeray being a little more tongue-in-cheek as he laughs at the mores of society. This book is more serious. Much more serious. This was Thackeray's attempt at historical fiction, so he is not writing about his contemporary Victorians, but about the 17th century. Not only is the prose complex and convoluted, typical of the day in which it was written, it also contains anachronisms from the 1600's, so it is heavily footnoted to explain to Thackeray's contemporary readers some of the customs and languages with which they would not have been familiar.

In spite of the fact that I'm nearly halfway through the book, I have the feeling that the story hasn't really begun yet. Nevertheless, I'm engaged by the characters and situations and curious to find out where it is all going. I read part of the (modern) forward, which stated that this was Thackeray's most important book, which I find very surprising. I would have supposed that Vanity Fair would claim that distinction. I've already had to renew this book from the library once, but I'm hoping to finish it by the end of December. It's not part of my From the Stacks challenge, but it has a deadline just the same!

I received Parnassus on Wheels in the mail this week--the very first book I've acquired via Bookmooch. I'm really looking forward to reading this--a book I learned about only from reading lit bloggers--but I must discipline myself to read the other books I've started first. I'm almost getting good at that.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The House of Exile by Nora Waln

I finally finished this book, which I wrote about earlier. As the book progressed, it became more difficult to read. Nora Waln's matter-of-fact telling of truly terrifying events did not make reading about the terrifying events any easier.

This was a turbulent period in China's history, and violence and anti-foreign sentiment made life difficult for westerners. There was a strong pro-war movement among students and young people, and they tried through various means to force the government to declare war on Japan. The Japanese were already bombing parts of China. More than once, Nora was unable to travel freely in China, or to visit her Chinese "family."

The book concludes in a curious way, which leaves the reader wanting desperately to know what happened after. The final chapter is a sort of book-end to the opening chapter, in which Nora travels via canal to reach the Lin family home. She finishes the book with a similar journey, accompanied by the same people, as she travels back for a visit. Because the book was published in 1935, and we all know that Japan did indeed invade China (imprisoning many westerners), one wants to know what became of Nora and her family--both her English husband and daughter and her Chinese family. For that, I suppose I will have to find other books.

I've always enjoyed Pearl Buck's books about this period in China, and reading another perspective was interesting. Pearl Buck focuses so closely on single individuals, while Nora Waln includes broad information about trends in Chinese culture and thought. Whatever position her husband held, it was important. They received an invitation to Chang Kai Shek's wedding and met Charles Lindbergh when he visited China and used his piloting skills to help rescue flood victims.

There are so many interesting things in this book it's hard to choose what to share. One of the most interesting things I learned about was Shameen. When the British wanted China to give (sell) them some land so that they could maintain a presence in China, the emperor gave them Shameen. Which was a sandbar. The British accepted the sandbar, and every ship that traveled to China carried a load of soil in the hold. They built the sandbar up into an island, planting trees around the rim to secure the soil. They built homes and businesses on Shameen, which was a center for foreign traders in Canton until the Japanese invaded. Nora and her husband lived there for several years, and it is still in existence today. This was not the only sandbar or swamp China gave to foreigners--it was their standard policy. You want land?...this is what you can have. And in every case, the foreigners built it up and developed it. Most foreigners seemed to welcome Chinese refugees into their relatively safe territories during times of upheaval.

I just discovered that Nora Waln wrote another book that deals with the period immediately following this one. After all those years in China, she somehow landed in Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1939, and shares many details of life under the Nazis before the war began. I think that's going on my wish list. Her frank, factual style, uncolored by biased language, actually makes the events she writes about stand out starkly, as if in relief. She doesn't tell us that the Chinese were brutal; she merely states, in passive voice, than an official was beaten with bamboo rods so severely that he later lost his life.

I never heard of Nora Waln until I was given this book, and now I'm interested to read more of what she wrote. She later became a "war correspondent," writing about the Korean War and the Cold War (among other things). I'm glad my first introduction to her was through this, the book that covers the beginning of her colorful, well-traveled life. We could probably use a few more cold-blooded observers of her type today.


This was my second book in the From the Stacks challenge. I'm nearly finished with the third, and I suspect much of January will be given up to finishing the last two.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Once upon a time...

We had been in Poland a few years when the residents of our building received the announcement that all the gas pipes were going to be changed. This was early in November. If I recall correctly, they turned off our gas the Monday before Thanksgiving, and didn't turn it back on until a few days before Christmas. Our heat was provided in another way, but without gas, we had no hot water and no stove/oven. We purchased a two-burner electric cooker and on this I prepared all meals for our family of five. (At the time, we also had no microwave or crockpot.) I think I made pork chops instead of turkey for Thanksgiving that year.

Unfortunately, we had no means of baking during the prime "baking season" of the year. No cookies. No cakes. No pies. I did have the electric cooker and decided that we could still make Christmas candy. I surfed the internet, gathering recipes that used basic ingredients available in Poland, rather than specialty ingredients such as "almond bark" or "corn syrup" or "chocolate chips."

I remember the first batch of candy vividly. I carefully affixed my candy thermometer to the side of the pan and waited for the boiling candy mixture to reach the correct temperature. I waited a long time. I waited some more. The sugar-mixture scorched and burned in the pan, but the thermometer never reached the correct temperature, and thus I learned that it was broken. I discarded the first batch of candy, dismayed that the candy thermometer was broken, as it had come from the States and I had never seen one here in Poland.

Not to be outwitted by unreliable gadgetry, I consulted the cookbook which contained pictures and explanations about cold-water testing hot candy mixtures. Without going into great detail, let me simply say that I tried, I learned, and ultimately, I conquered. I have never since used a candy thermometer when making candy, nor have I ever scorched a pan. Firm ball stage? Hard crack stage? I've got it covered!

We enjoyed the candy we made that year so much that it became a tradition to make more kinds of candy at Christmas than cookies. Tonight we made a batch of Aunt Bill's Brown Candy. This is just as much work as the recipe says it is, so it's best if you don't plan to make this at the same time you are making other things. It makes a lot of candy, and it is extremely rich. Do not leave out the nuts, although--no one will be surprised--I used walnuts instead of pecans. This candy really needs the nuts to balance the extreme richness.

I'll also be making two (or three) kinds of fudge, cream cheese mints, divinity, and probably hard-tack candy. Also peanut brittle and English toffee. I can't remember if there is anything else I should make, but I'm sure someone will remind me if I forget anything vital!

I think the holiday season has officially begun!

And lest I forget...

Lord, I'm really, really thankful to have a working oven, stove, and hot water this winter!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Happy Holidays

Today is "St. Nicholas' Day" or Święty Mikołaja. Traditionally, children receive presents from St. Nicholas on this day, and the custom is well-maintained, being driven by retail interests as well as tradition. Every day on the calendar is the name day of some Catholic saint, and pretty much every Polish person is named after a saint (sometimes a middle name rather than a first name). They celebrate their "name days" which are considered more important than birthdays, although often the name day will be close to the birthday on the calendar.

It is not surprising, in view of this custom, that Polish people continue to celebrate St. Nicholas' Day. Giving gifts at Christmas time is actually a little less traditional, but it is pretty widely practiced as well. Adults exchange gifts then, as St. Nicholas' Day is exclusively for children, although most teens I know want to be included in the fun, too.

The traditional Polish St. Nicholas does not look like the English/American version of Santa Claus, whose appearance is based very much on the description in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

The Polish Święty Mikołaj has a more medieval appearance, and often sports a cloak. He need not be chubby or have a white beard, although the white-trimmed red suit is still his trademark.

We don't really celebrate St. Nicholas' Day at our house, although sometimes Polish friends will give the children candy. However, we had lots of Christmas fun today. Not long ago, I acquired a sewing machine, and with a little trial and error, I have managed to perform the basic operations. (Many thanks to those who offered help and suggestions!) Last year, after Christmas, I purchased Christmas fabric and ribbon when they were deeply discounted.

Today, the girls helped me sew the material into simple draw-string gift bags which I plan to use instead of paper to wrap this year's gifts. And next year's. And the gifts for the year after that. It's not at all uncommon to find me wrapping every single gift for the kids on Christmas Eve after they have gone to bed (and they don't go to bed so early any more). Now I can pop everything into bags, pull the ribbons, and voila! Gifts wrapped. No paper, no tape, no fumbling with ribbons and bows. No mega-ultra-sized trash bag full of paper or snippets all over the carpet on Christmas morning.

It's a great idea, and I'm happy to implement it, but if I have to tell the whole, unvarnished truth, my kids are less than thrilled. E. and K. helped me make them because they wanted to use the new sewing machine (and they did a nice job), but they think I am destroying an important Christmas tradition by trying to avoid paper wrapping. They tell me that the fun and the sound of tearing paper is inimical to the joy of Christmas morning, and I am only slightly less objectionable than Ebenezer himself with this attempt to alter what is clearly a sacred, time-honored tradition.

What do you think? Are reusable cloth bags a viable alternative to paper? Or should I be looking out for mysterious, ghostly visitors on Christmas Eve who will reveal to me a shadowy Christmas Future in which my children have been scarred for life by my egregious neglect of crinkly paper?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Looking ahead

I recently tidied up the bookshelves a bit, and these are my to-be-read shelves. Except for a few school books tucked into the corner, these are unread books that I hope to read within the next year or so. The top is mostly non-fiction, and the bottom is mostly fiction, although the school-books down there pushed a few of the fiction books up to the top.

Of course, I'm diligently reading my books for the "From the Stacks" challenge, as well as my library book, The History of Henry Esmond by Thackeray, but since I had to tidy these shelves anyway, I couldn't resist making tentative plans about what to read next.

As I've already stated, I'm going to start From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun in January. I'm about halfway through The Literary Discipline by John Erskine, and when I finish that I will have to decide between starting The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye or The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill. I have a biography of C.S. Lewis and an intriguing mix of education-related books to read, from Thinking Youth's Greatest Need to Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.

On the fiction shelf, I have Jane Eyre waiting for a reread, and I think it has been over ten years since I last read it. I have Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. There are two more books by Chaim Potok, a "Miss Read" book, The Complete Father Brown by Chesterton, and a few examples of the lighter reading I enjoy. I've got The Pickwick Papers to be my Dickens-for-the-year in 2007, something by Evelyn Waugh (whom I've never read) and Henry James (ditto). There are a few Christian fiction novels I picked up for peanuts at a sale which I've never heard of before and therefore view somewhat askance. They may be treasures and they may be rubbish, and if I had to guess which is the more likely...well, if anyone knows anything about Tracy DePree or Linda Lee Chaikin as authors, feel free to warn me.

There's more, of course, and between the library and my other book resources here in Poland I'll have plenty to read in 2007. It's a warm and comfortable feeling, because there have been years when I had no more than two or three new books to read for the whole year. That's when I began the habit of rereading all of Jane Austen's novels each year (although I've missed Northanger Abbey this year and I'm unlikely to get to it in the next three weeks). I may not have time to reread them all in 2007, although I probably will. I like to pace myself with new books because the supply has always been short. That doesn't seem to be the case so much these days. I think my book-buying spree in the States last year was a shade on the gluttonous side.

The good news is that overbuying books isn't like overbuying bananas. They aren't going to rot on that shelf, just wait their turns. And a room with shelves full of books is a friendly, homey room to be in.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Good wishes for the holidays, Polish style

Wigilia (or "vigil") is the Christmas Eve celebration in Poland. There are so many customs associated with the evening, that if I want to have a chance to share any of them, I will have to start early. One of the most interesting parts is the opłatek (oh-PWAH-tek), which is a paper-thin wafer made of (I think) wheat paste. Each one is pressed into a religious Christmas design, although the pictures are not easy to see.

A wafer is placed at each dinner place, and before the meal begins, the sharing of the opłatek takes place. One by one, you go to each person present and offer your wafer to them. They will break off a tiny piece, and you must take a tiny piece from their proffered wafer. Then, you exchange Christmas greetings and good wishes for the new year with each other and eat the wafer together. The "good wishes" are extremely formulaic, and fairly complicated--"I offer good wishes and good health to you and your family during this holiday season and for the coming new year." (Of course, I mean it's complicated in Polish.) I usually listen to the spiel and offer the ultra-abbreviated wszystkiego najlepszego (all the best) or the even more pathetic wzajemnie (likewise). If I'm sharing good wishes with an American, I can manage much better.

All this greeting and well-wishing is carried on simultaneously by everyone present, so it's a noisy, bustling time if you have any number of people. But, no matter how long it takes, it is not finished until every single person present has exchanged greetings with every single other person present. It's tradition!

The wafers taste much like the cardboard they resemble, so when I say that you break off a tiny piece, I really mean it--because you have to eat it. Unless you are eating with scores of people, there will always be part of the opłatek left over. That part should be saved and fed to any animals on the premises, because, according to tradition, an animal who shares the opłatek will be able to speak with a human voice at midnight.

I've been told that you can serve two wafers together, spreading honey thinly between them, to improve the taste. But would cardboard really taste better with honey?

I enjoy this Polish tradition, which I believe is practiced in other Slavic countries, and will probably continue it as long as I live. I took plenty of opłatki to the States with me last year, so we could enjoy this Polish custom with our families.

Wszystkiego Najlepszego!

Friday, December 01, 2006

'Tis the season...(for a bit of miscellaneous rambling)

In the same location where the craft fair is held in August--the center of the old city in Krakow, called the Rynek--there is also a Christmas fair. Some of the vendors are the same ones--my favorite artisan is always there--but no one is demonstrating their craft. Not everyone who comes to the craft fair comes to this. Most of the offerings are related to Christmas--either gifts, decorations, food, or music. There is always a delectable array of handmade glass ornaments, traditionally decorated gingerbread, and a collection of silly hats. I think the silly hats are on offer because immediately after Christmas comes New Year and "Karniwal" when it is traditional to dress up.

I've been watching to see when the fair would open, and last Tuesday (just before I got sick, but I haven't bothered writing about that) I visited the fair while E. was having her craft class. I didn't take pictures because it was after dark (it gets dark around 4pm right now) and foggy on top of that. However, there was something new at the fair that will be fun for everyone to visit--reindeer!

They had two live reindeer, sporting tall, shaggy "racks" or "antlers." There was a sign stating that pictures were not allowed, but since there is no penalty for ignoring signs like that (at least, not that I'm aware of), people were flashing digital cameras and cell phone cameras at them continuously. Because of the dark and fog, you could see the flashes like fireworks--flash, flash, FLASH. No one was being discreet about it. The reindeer didn't seem to mind, and the way-too-American Święty Mikołaj (Santa Claus) didn't object either. I wonder why they bother putting up the sign?

I wandered among the booths enjoying the Christmas music, trying to pick out ornaments to buy for the kids' collections this year, and looking for anything new or unique. I bought a serving of smoked sheep's cheese for E, who loves it (I don't) and a new Christmas CD. Next visit will have to be during the daytime and with the kids, and then I'll try to take some pictures.

I'm planning to devote part of my blogging time in December to writing about Polish Christmas traditions. I doubt I'll cover them all, and some of them are not exclusively Polish but belong to other slavic countries or Europe in general.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been sick much of this week. K began to be sick Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and then both K and C were sick on the holiday. They continued through the weekend, and then C began to be better while K morphed from having stomach flu to a dreadful cough (bronchitis). I called the doctor for K on Tuesday and because he was busy, arranged for him to come see her on Wednesday. That worked out for the best, because I became dreadfully sick Tuesday evening after my visit to the fair, running a fever and having chest congestion. The doctor, kind soul that he is, took a look at three patients on Wednesday (examining C and pronouncing her fine, which I expected), but only charged us one fee.

And thus begin the holidays. I'm feeling better today after several days of feverish misery during which time I did some light reading and not much else. The kids have already broken into the Christmas movies, but apart from that, it doesn't look very festive at our place. Yet.