Ten Things I Learned While Visiting Warsaw

1. Young Polish women still wear panty hose. The girls are beautiful, but they insist on wearing grandma-like nude stockings with everything – even shorts.

2. Warsaw’s a clean city, but young Warsavians don’t have respect for the historical buildings – they put graffiti all over them.

3. The Tom Selleck mustache (aka – the modified Lech Walesa) is still widely worn – without irony.

4. Vodka is considered a breakfast food.

5. The Cocomo Go-Go Club is NOT the place to be. According to the news, girls with pink umbrellas pull patrons into the club where they’re given roofy-like drugs in their drinks, robbed and even blackmailed.

6. American culture isn’t as ubiquitous as I expected it to be. Mostly just McDonald’s, KFC and Dancing With the Stars.

7. TJ Maxx here is known as “TK Maxx”.

8. No matter where you go in the world, a clipboard-carrying, post-adolescent member of Greenpeace will find you.

9. Those goofy disposable hotel slippers actually come in handy when the floor’s cold.

10. Polish shower drains make NO sense.

Warsaw Day 7: Souvenirs and Hot Beers

Slept like shit last night. I thought I was over the jet lag but it came back again with a vengeance, preventing me from even thinking of sleeping until 1am. I lay there for an hour, my brain was racing, I got up, I read and played games trying to tire myself out, then resorted to slamming a pillow over my face at 3 am, hoping to convince my stream of consciousness to shut the hell up.

I woke up at 8:20 despite the restless night, and considered going back to sleep but decided to muscle through the fatigue and go to the National Museum. Along the way I encountered a street sign that illustrates perfectly why I keep getting confused about how to cross the street here.

Wtf?

The National Museum turned out to be right next to the brewery I went to the day before. It too was located in a hideous hunk of cement. The front of it had nothing that indicated it was an art museum – just a big empty fountain and a set of uninspiring stairs. Inside, there was again a huge mob of school kids. (sigh…) Admission to the regular galleries was free, but I paid the $6.50 admission to see a special exhibit of work by a 19th century Polish painter called Aleksander Gierymski. He was the most split-personality artist I’ve ever encountered.

Gallery after gallery was filled with paintings that looked like different people had done them; some were hard, some soft, some Impressionistic, some Academic, some sketchy and loose, some so tight they made my head hurt. My favorite part of the exhibit was a room full of night paintings like this one:

Paris Opera House at Night

He was obviously talented, however he had a tendency toward the sentimental and melodramatic that didn’t serve him well. In fact, I saw a handful of other good Polish painters in the museum and they seemed to do the same thing so it could be a romantic aspect of Polish character. Anyway, though the museum itself wasn’t much to look at, it was worth the visit for the handful of strong painters and some really impressive wooden Medieval sculptures, including these that looked like they had real hair. Ugh.

NOooooOOoooooOOOooooo...

After the National Museum, I was getting peckish so I went in the direction of the Modern Art Museum, thinking I’d find something along the way. I ended up going back into the mall where I had a warm beer (not wanting a warm Coke) and a soggy caesar salad. Not a very satisfying lunch, but enough to power my legs a few doors down to the museum. Admission was free, and as you might expect, the Poles do Modern and Contemporary weirdness pretty well.

It's a snowman. In a freezer.

The Modern Museum was small so fairly quick to get through. That left me with time to go back toward the Old Town and look for some souvenirs and/or draw. Taking new streets, I ran into this building in what used to be the Warsaw ghetto—it’s something else to be walking and suddenly run into it.

A monument to Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

It’s sobering to see, and I was honestly amazed that people were sitting outside at a cafe right next to it, eating lunch.

Past the building, I ran into the Saxon Garden which was built by King August II and dates to the 18th century. In it, I nearly fell over a slew of other points of interest: a huge fountain, a sculpture garden, a sun dial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (I basically breezed past a bunch of picturesque things, knowing I had a mere handful of hours before my time in Warsaw was done.)

My sense of direction must be improving because the path I took through these sights took me where I intended to go—the Old Town. There, that “I have to find gifts for people and I’m running out of time” anxiety set in. I found myself surrounded by tourist shops full of cheap, ugly “folk art”. (Machine-made, mass-produced garbage such as magnets, flags, dolls and ugly t-shirts with the word “Poland” on them.)

Finally, after scouring every shop on every street, I ran into a place right on the market square that was just what I was hoping for. A gallery full of hand made items made by different Polish artists. There I got me and Nick this adorable animal wall hanging…

Raccoon!

…and once I picked up this purse, I was physically incapable of putting it back.

The best use I've seen for felted wool.

Pleased with my purchases, I went out to the square and sat down at an umbrella table to drink a beer and sketch. The young waiter was not at all happy that I only wanted a beer and shook his head at me ruefully. Like, with some serious rue. Not to be intimidated by a judgey teenager, I took out my sketchbook and defiantly took up a table for over an hour. I got a few drawings done, accompanied by a guy with an accordion who blended together things like Besame Mucho, Russian folk song Korobushka, and the theme to the Godfather better than a New York City DJ.

I ended up justifying the time at my table when a friendlier waitress went by who was willing to accommodate my out-of-season request for hot beer. Take THAT, stubborn pierogi restaurant waiter!

Beer. With a straw.

The hot beer was…interesting. As the waitress explained it, they boil regular beer, then add cinnamon and flavored syrup. It’s meant to be a hot drink for a cold evening, but I’m not convinced it’d be all that satisfying. First, it was lukewarm, not hot, and second, the boiling process took all the carbonation out of it. Basically, it was a fruity, flat, somewhat-warm beer. Oh well. At least I can say I had it.

I also had this:

After seeing about a hundred kids walking around with them, I had to have one myself. Yes, it looks like leftovers from a mass murder, but it’s a belgian waffle slathered with cherry pie filling and whipped cream. I’m sure I looked disgusting eating it, but it was delicious. While munching I noticed this. So…when the live music is playing, are you supposed to climb down this hole?

Club entry or laundry chute? You decide.

Well Warsaw, that’s just about it. I leave tomorrow morning at 7 am. You’ve shown me some interesting sights, treated me to some incredible food, and been more hospitable than I would have imagined. We may never see each other again, but let me say with sincerity – I’m glad we met.

Warsaw Day 6 – Walking, walking, walking

My hope was to get up early and cram in as much sight-seeing as possible, but sleep deficit caught up to me and I slept late. I feel fortunate not to have been woken up by a pushy cleaning lady – apparently, this hotel has issues with cleaning ladies not taking “get out” for an answer. One of the journalists on this trip told us a woman barged into his room while he was sleeping and proceeded to fill his mini-bar despite his protestations. We suggested the next day, to wait for her right inside the door – naked.

Anyway, no grumpy maids accosted me so I slept until 12:30. This gave me a late start but was perfect timing as far as vising another brewery went. The only problem? My horrible sense of direction sent me blocks and blocks in the wrong direction. My only consolation was that I ran into a Starbucks and was able to buy the Warsaw Starbucks cup my dog nanny requested, and I got to see the famous Warsaw palm tree.

It's made of plastic.

I asked people for directions to the brewery three separate times, was sent various different ways and had a bizarre exchange with a woman who came up to me (perhaps thinking I knew how to get somewhere? ha!) on the Royal Road. She started to address me in Polish, I smiled and said, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” whereupon she put her hand out in a placatory gesture and said, “Oh sorry!” That in itself, isn’t so strange. What was unusual was that upon reaching out, she pressed my boob ever so lightly. Perhaps it’s a traditional Polish gesture of welcome? Hrm.

Despite wasting lots of shoe leather (or in my case, rubber) and suffering an unexpected groping, I at long last, found the brewery at the very crossroads on which I’d started. It was called “Cuda na Kiju” and was located inside an ugly old government building near a statue of Charles de Gaulle. Interestingly, although it’s connected to a structure that’s your typical hideous block of concrete, the bar itself is glass on all sides. I ordered a sampler of four Polish beers: a pale, a red smoke beer, a schwarzbier and an IPA.

There is solid craft beer in Poland.

These proved miles better than the ones at the previous brewery. They actually had smell, taste, an appropriate level of carbonation. The only one I wasn’t too keen on was the schwarzbier which had a strange “off” taste. It was an interesting place. Run by Polish hipsters, young skater-looking guys, but the music on the sound system was old American 1930′s songs – perky things like Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”.

After the brewery, I decided to continue on South on Nowy Swiat to the Liezinski Gardens. On my own, I got to see more of them, and spent some time sketching at a little cafe. To buy time at the table I got a latte and an ice cream sundae with chocolate, vanilla and coffee ice cream with walnuts, whipped cream and prunes. Prunes? I wondered if perhaps they’d discovered some kind of wondrous culinary combination by tossing prunes on chocolate ice cream but no, they really didn’t add anything. Well, perhaps a bit of roughage.

That big black thing is a prune.

The park is huge and within its boundaries, I walked and walked and walked. The day was overcast, the squirrels were hopping, young couples were canoodling, older people were taking the air… I crossed back through the park again, across a freeway, and past a slew of embassies. The American embassy looks SO American. I can’t show a photo though, because I thought if I took one, the policeman outside it might tackle me. I did however, get a photo of the statue of Ronald Reagan that’s across the street from it. Polish people apparently revere him. Urgh.

Yup, there's the Gipper.

I entered another large park, took a long time traversing that one, and ended up in a kind of grim, unattractive area of the city. I stopped to buy a donut for later and for the first time, encountered someone young who didn’t speak English and seemed to get impatient with me. Mostly, people have been nicer than I expected and not too judgmental (at least visibly) about us lazy one-language-speaking Yanks.

Roundabout, I ended up back on Nowy Swiat and took it all the way back to my hotel. I got back at 6, realizing that I’d have to find some kind of dinner but had no energy to do it. I opted for room service, even though it forced me to straighten up my tornado-hit room. It’s just too embarrassing to let the guy bringing me my food see what a slob I am. Obviously, he was just as uncomfortable as I am with the concept of delivering food to a stranger’s rented bedroom, because upon trying to perform the big “voila” food reveal, he dropped the metal dome thingie on the floor with a big clang followed by a lot of apologies. Poor kid.

Warsaw Day 5 – Never, under any circumstances, ever stop eating.

The weather forecast said it’d be sunny and 64 degrees today. The weather forecast lied. This was a bummer because before going back to the venue to witness the climax of the World of Tanks Grand Finals, the press and some Wargaming people hopped on buses for a whirlwind city tour. The ride around the city might have been nice but for the constant amplified sound of the tour guide’s voice competing with two rows of German guys behind me who talked the ENTIRE TIME.

I’ve seen groups when they don’t speak a tour guide’s language, talk amongst themselves because they feel left out. These guys totally spoke English though, so they can’t use that excuse. They were just a rude group of jerks.

About to give Chopin a whompin'.

Anyway, we went to Lazienski Park, the largest park in Warsaw. It wasn’t quite green yet, but it did feature an impressive statue of Frederik Chopin next to what looks like Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow. It also had lots of royal summer residences, other beautiful sculptures, squirrels a-plenty.

The king preferred informal summer decor.

We basically breezed through the park (I might just go back tomorrow), skipping many interesting and picturesque things, and got back on the bus to take an equally fast-motion tour of the Old Town. There, the Harry Potter theme inadvertently continued when we saw this girl doing her levitation act.

WhooOOoooOOO!

The tour was meant to continue on beyond Old Town, but we decided to jump ship (or jump bus, as the case may be) and find something to eat instead. We found this amazing little place that served “the best noodles in Warsaw since 1682″. The food there was very good, but my favorite thing about it was the decor which was all painted on. The clocks, the wood paneling, the light fixtures – everything. So clever!

I'm going to throw all my furniture away and do this.

The only way to have a deer head.

After a lunch of kvass and pierogies (never can get enough pierogies – these ones were meat fried in cheddar cheese sauce – oh mah gawd), we walked back to the venue to catch the tail end of the World of Tanks finals. No surprise to anyone – the Russian team Natus Vincer won after beating out yet another Russian team, Virtus Pro. Check this out – the theater was so packed, this was what the theater lobby looked like with fans watching the matches on monitors.

Rabid World of Tanks fans.

Hard to believe, but once the competition was over and the trophy awarded, we actually considered eating again and started back toward the Old Town. We once again went for traditional Polish food and ended up at Kompania Piwna. This seriously, has got to be the best food value in Warsaw. We all ordered various entrees (only one each this time, thank god) and when they came, we were all taken aback by the size of them. Mine was grilled chicken (like, half a chicken) on top of a huge pile of rice, sauerkraut, cole slaw, garlic potatoes, and on top, thick disks of cheese. We also had a free starter of sauerkraut and pickles. Holy moly. And all of it, with drinks, was only $33.

The highlight of the meal was my gracious host from Wargaming ordering a meat sampler that was absolutely ridiculous. This is what he looked like after eating less than half of it.

Ughh.....Hungghhhh....

He may never eat again. Seriously. Like, I’m not even kidding.

I’m really glad I got to do these foodie things while I had people here to do them with. I’m not sure I’ll go to many sit-down places by myself and with them here, I’ve more or less had my fill of traditional Polish dishes. (Although I might get more honey kvass. That’s damn good stuff.) How the hell do Polish people eat like this? And they’re all tall and skinny too. The next couple of days I’m going to have to do a LOT of walking and cut the eating back as much as possible. In any case, when I get back I’m not looking at a scale for at least a week after getting right back on the Weight Watchers wagon.

Welp, tomorrow’s my first day on my own. Everyone else is heading back home in the morning, but I’m staying here in Warsaw two more days. Should be an adventure.

Warsaw Day 4 – Baby Tanks and Bigos

Day two of the Grand Finals and I was prepared to head out first for the tank museum tour. I walked to the Kinotek (which amazingly, is inside this humongous Soviet building) to catch the tour bus but I’d gotten my signals crossed. I’d showed up for the wrong tour (too early). As a consolation for getting thrown off the bus, I did get to see a kid dressed like a gangsta wearing a t-shirt that said “Straight Slavic Flavour” in big letters.

The Soviets are serious about movies.

I went across the street to the Multikino and spent some time watching World of Tanks matches. The Chinese team JL E-sports Club were repeatedly trounced by the American team Fnatic. I heard (but didn’t see) that the Russian teams are really kicking butt and so I’m hoping I’ll see them in action on Sunday. I noticed after winning, that the members of Fnatic had kids coming up to them wanting autographs. How cute is that?

After an hour or so of tank battles, I went back out into the mall and into a grocery store on the bottom floor. I still get a kick out of looking at food packaging in other countries and was also appreciative of the deli counter’s pierogi selection. Why don’t WE have this?

Mmmmm...pierogies.

At 2:30 I went back out to the Kinotek to wait for the bus. It took us to the Panzer museum (not a pleasant drive really, since the bus smelled like a mixture of sweat and mildewed towels) where we got to check out some Polish and Soviet planes (Korean war era) as well as a variety of tanks. This baby one (we were calling it the “Corgi tank”. I can just see Milo and Maisie driving it) was my favorite.

You just wanna give it a hug.

We loaded ammo, cleaned a tank barrel, checked out a tank engine, and watched an impromptu tank parade made up of the Corgi tank and two other tanks of increasing size. (Funny – one of the Polish guides “complimented” a French journalist who was doing the ammo loading thing, by saying he was better at it than the Germans. It was the way he said it that was funny. “Yeah, you have a reputation for being terrible at this, but you are actually better than the German guys!” Way to improve international relations, dude.)

Choking on dust and tank fumes.

It was interesting all in all, but the temperature dropped as the sun went down, and my attention span dropped right along with it. We were glad to get back on the bus and head back to the Kinotek. By then I was not only freezing, I was dying to wash my dirty hands. We walked back through town to a restaurant on Nowy Sviat (a very pretty street lined with shops and restaurants) to get some traditional Polish fare.

We chose a place specifically for the hot beer they were supposed to have, but our waiter was a stubborn cuss, and and since it’s a holiday drink, he wasn’t inclined to have the bartender make it for us. Instead he pushed the hot mead so we tried that. It was extreeeeemely sweet, which seemed like a mistake (as in, not fermented long enough) but the heat of it was welcome. We had to sit outside since the restaurant was tiny, but they had heaters and wool blankets for your legs which made it bearable.

Second dinner.

We fulfilled the fat American stereotype by ordering two entrees each (I had the Bigos – hunter’s stew – a mixture of meat and cabbage and a selection of pierogies) which is good because it took forever to get the second half of our order. Service here is very slow. There’s definitely no concept of efficiency when it comes to Polish waiters or kitchen staff. You can wait for an hour before they finally bring you anything.

Oh, and the waiter was pushy about what we wanted to eat too – we wanted the Polish sausage and he told us not to get it and tried to push the special – rabbit with cream sauce. Dude, shut your pie hole and bring me what I want! (He was also very strident too at the end of the meal, making sure we knew the tip wasn’t included in the bill.)

Stuffed with meat and pierogies, we rolled out of there and back toward the hotel, stopping for ice cream and other convenience store stuffs to take back to the room. I found a new favorite – a chocolate bar with a liquid cherry center. Mmmm….

Warsaw Day 3 – 50 Cent and Wargaming go head to head

Well it’s finally here – the first day of the World of Tanks Grand Finals. Today at breakfast, I had the courage to try the stuff in the bottles. Turns out, it’s flavored vodka, which I guess Polish people drink with breakfast because (as a girl at the buffet told me) “it’s not that strong.” (it’s 30 proof)

Cherry, walnut and pear vodka. It's what's for breakfast.

Fortified by booze, I walked from the hotel, across town to the venue (a cinema attached to a giant modern mall. I wanted to slide down this thing, and after my morning aperitif, was sure I could do it.)

Just gimme a bathmat.

The place was mobbed and I was amazed at how popular World of Tanks really is in Poland until I realized that the reason for the crowd was a coincidental visit from rapper 50 Cent who was there plugging his new headphones. Talk about an unexpected occurrence.

That tiny speck in the distance is 50 Cent.

Expensive little buggers.

Anyway, the Grand Finals were held in the craziest movie house I’ve ever seen. Like something out of a futuristic eight year old’s dreams.

VIP bar at the cinema. Who does this?

After a press conference, the battles began in earnest. I was expecting them to be fairly static and was surprised to find that the rivalry between the American team S.I.M.P. and the Polish team Lemming Train were pretty intense. The whole theater of course was cheering for the home team and I found myself really wishing the Americans would win. The two teams were pretty evenly matched, but in the end, Lemming Train prevailed.

Taking a break from the battles (which went on for 9 hours), I went walking around the nearby area where I found that you can dress like a matador if you shop at the Polish H&M and that TJ Maxx here is called “TK Maxx”. (It’s the little things, Jules.)

Matador is the new black.

I also sat outside a humongous Soviet structure, a kind of tourist center/technical museum and watched as what looked like a trio of art students giggled and took photos. Looks like the photographer was going for an homage to Willy Wonka?

Oh you crazy art students.

Waves of tiredness kept hitting me throughout the day, despite this break and frequent coffee breaks, a mediocre sushi lunch and a painfully sweet thing I bought that was like raspberry cream cheese sandwiched between two meringues—shudder.

I frankly didn’t think I’d make it until the end of the day, having to interview Wargaming execs and watch even more battles (dark, hot theater = narcolepsy), but I did. By then though, I and several other members of the media were famished. We attempted to go to this traditional Polish pierogi place, but they were tiny, packed, and not particularly keen to help us, judging by the hostess’s attitude. We ended up back at the Hard Rock Cafe nibbling appetizers, drinking beers and throwing back vodka and shots of some sort of heinous blue stuff. We also saw this puffy shirt on the wall which I thought belonged to Prince but which actually belonged to some Polish rockstar.

Someone's been raiding the Purple One's closet.

No food and too much alcohol did us in so we went back to the hotel around midnight.

Today – round two of the Grand Finals, but first, we’re headed to a tank museum where we’ve been promised a cool tour and tank rides! I’m hoping this time we get to ride IN the tanks as opposed to ON them.

Warsaw Day 2.5 – Rain and Warsaw Rising

20140403_133053

It’s hard to throw an actual day on this, since my sense of time’s all messed up after losing a day traveling. I was very surprised to learn today is Thursday.

As I feared, I woke up at 2 am last night and was wide awake. I had a killer headache and had to employ the best headache remedy I know: hot peppermint tea and a mindless social game. I finally got tired enough again to go back to bed, slept for a few more hours, then got up, scarfed some hotel breakfast (Nothing too adventuresome on the buffet here. I guess I’m getting used to seeing herring for breakfast. Wait–I take that back. I just remembered there were bottles of something that perhaps was liqueur next to the cereal.) –and headed north.

The idea was to ignore the rain that spit down on me every few minutes, and not tax my fuzzy brain overmuch. I made it to the Old Town square which was full of pretty, multi-colored buildings dating from the 13th century.

It was also full of school kids. Lots and lots of school kids. Busloads of ‘em were running, yelling, jumping and taking selfies with the statue of King Sigismund III. Their hormone-fueled antics were set–with a marvelous incongruousness–to the sound of classical music brought to us by this guy who was tearing it up on the accordion.

Passing through the Old Town availed me of buildings with cool architectural details (loved this one housing a museum dedicated to Madame Curie) and weird juxtapositions of past and present (like this amazing iron door leading to–shudder–a Subway).

I crossed a bridge through the barbican (a modest-sized brick fortification surrounding part of the town) and jumped when some adolescent boy screamed from a few blocks away. At first it sounded like goofing around, but then it repeated at regular intervals, sounding as if he was having all his limbs torn off. I have no idea what was going on there.

Trying to get away from the drawn-and-quartering, I turned down a different street and encountered this cool-looking clock on a wall.

To look at it, you’d think it’d make a sound like “splat!” but right as I was staring at it, it struck noon and a beautiful, melodic chime came out of it. It sounded like a giant music box: kind of magical, what with the sun coming in and out of the clouds and all.

Further wandering led me to a place at lunch called The Inn Under the Red Hog, a restaurant luminaries such as Bruce Willis have been to. I wasn’t looking for it – it just looked interesting so I stopped in. The restaurant stands where the old Iron Inn used to be, a place popular back in the day, with high Communist mucky-mucks. The current owners have tricked it out in a semi-kitschy style that pays homage to the salad days of Communist Poland with Polish menu items with names like, “Lenin’s Lamb Poronin 1913”. I myself had the wild boar a la former Yugoslavian President, Josip Broz Tito. I also got some “kopytka” (gnocchi-like dumplings) and beautiful red borscht.

Mmm...wild boar.


(Btw, if you wanna check the restaurant out, see the website. It has a bizarre music loop with the sound of a man creepily laughing for no good reason.)

Full of boar and potatoes, I went to the nearby Museum of Warsaw Rising which commemorates the way the Polish people eventually fought the Nazis off near the end of WWII. It was a really great museum, but very emotional to walk through. Again, the crowds of schoolkids were there and I know teenagers can be callous, but I was shocked at how they were breezing through the exhibits, laughing and chattering while looking at photographs from the Warsaw ghetto of executions and starving children, not to mention film footage of people taking away cartloads of dead bodies. What kind of generation are we raising?

Anyway, despite it’s difficult subject matter, the museum is modern and its exhibits are really nice.

I really needed a break after all that horror though, so I aimed my steps toward the hotel and a nearby craft brewery. There was no way I was going to miss Warsaw’s fledgling craft beer scene so I went to Kufle i Kapsle. As far as the scene went, it was much like some of the newer, smaller Bay Area breweries like Cellarmaker. That’s where the similarity ends however. I had a four beer sampler: two stouts, a dark lager and a black IPA and was disappointed in every one of them.

In general, they were thin, had little to no aroma, and had very subdued taste. Stouts should be rich and these were…not. The milk stout in particular was disappointing; it looked and tasted like flat RC cola. I was reminded of reading how American brewers said for them European brewers never get the IPA quite right (they end up making something very anemic) and that was certainly true here. The black IPA had almost zero hoppiness.

Despite this setback, I’m not ready to give up. There are more breweries in Warsaw and I intend to find them! Well, after the big event that is. Tomorrow begins the big World of Tanks Grand Finals! There’s some big money at stake here, so this should be a fierce fight among the competing teams. It’s my first e-sports event and I’m looking forward to it with great eagerness.

Warsaw by way of Amsterdam

I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport waiting to catch my plane to Warsaw, fighting to stay awake by sipping a Starbucks coffee I ruined by dumping a crap-ton of horrible fake creamer into it. There are so many things I love about Europe, but when it comes to half-and-half, the EU really needs to get with the program.

After 24 hours awake I’m starting to experience that kind of crazy euphoria that only comes from staying up far too long. I half believed I was hallucinating the PeeWee’s Playhouse-style airport furniture, the Jeff Koons balloon Venus of Willendorf, and the bearded, graying Dutchman who went by emptying the trash cans, whistling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Venus of Balloondorf

The 10 hour flight from SFO to Amsterdam was surprisingly painless despite a snotty stewardess with a chip on her shoulder and an infant 10 rows up who spent half the journey squealing like a loose fan belt. Without sleep, I’ve spent most of the five hour layover just trying to stay upright. So far I’ve done a pretty good job of seeming alert apart from when (twice) an airport employee said to me, “Have a good flight,” and I responded “You too.”

Back to life...back to reality.

Perhaps it would have helped to avail myself of the revivifying effects of the water massager (only one euro!) but I was too chicken. Fortunately, the rest of the long dayl of travel ended with an uneventful 90 minute flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw. I was totally unable to sleep even then, but hey, at least the guy in the seat next to me caught a few z’s.

Identities have been hidden to protect the innocent.

“Stay” WIP

Fuck. A late plane, a surly cab driver and now I can’t get into my goddamn room? Welcome to L.A.

Toni grabbed her bags and lugged them back down the decrepit cement stairs. The wheels of her beat up roller bag stuck on the tar-covered parking lot, still oozing from the heat of the midday sun. The stocky Filipino man behind the chipped laminate counter looked surprised to see her again.

“My keys don’t work.”

“Huh?”

“My card keys—neither of them open the door.”

The man took the keys from her and ran them through a card reader, staring hard at the screen in front of him. His face registered nothing. He ran them through a few more times then tossed them into a drawer.

“Sorry Miss. I can’t fix until tomorrow. I let you in with my master key.”

If I killed him now, how long would it take before anyone found the body?

“Uh…OK.”

He held the door for Toni as they exited the small, air-conditioned office but made no move to help her with her bags. At the top of the stairs, he opened the door with his pass key and stepped aside.

“You plan to go anywhere tonight Miss?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because you will be lock out unless someone in the office open the door for you.”

“Well then I guess I’m not going out.”

“OK. Goodnight, Miss.”

She stood in the doorway and watched him stump down the stairs and across the parking lot, his velcro loafers sticking to the melted tar. The motel crouched at the edge of a graffiti-covered L.A. street not far from the Staples center. The half-full swimming pool glowed a dingy pink as the sun sank behind a row of sickly palm trees. Sighing, she went inside her temporary home and shut the door behind her.

“Oh…my…god.”

It was the dirtiest hotel room she’d ever seen. A barren light bulb—one of those dim, eco-green types—feebly lit up finger-width gaps in the floorboards, a scraggy bedspread and scuffed furniture that quietly decayed under a milky white layer of god-knows-what. She turned back toward the door. There was a hole where the deadbolt should be and masking tape covering the peep hole.

“No no no. NO way.”

Dropping her messenger bag on the rickety bedside table, she dug out her cell phone. No service. She dove for the room phone and dialed the 1-800 number of her travel agency. The phone rang three times and then a familiar voice answered.

“Yes Miss?”

“Hi. I wasn’t trying to call you, I was trying to call out.”

“The phones don’t work that way Miss. You can get calls in but you can’t make calls out.”

She put the receiver down and started to laugh: a shaky laugh, even to her ears. Gathering her things, she exited, stopping at the office just long enough to cancel her reservation. The man at the desk bid her a perplexed goodbye and moments later she was standing on the twilit corner of 7th Street and Figueroa.
A group of smack-talking teenage boys approached from two blocks down so she started walking. She pulled her cell phone out again, praying it had at least a couple of bars and exhaled heavily when she saw the 4G light up. She dialed her travel agent, who was also her roommate.

“Genova Travel, how may I help you?”

“Gen, you gotta help me. That motel I booked was a nightmare. Cheap, filthy, totally unsafe and now I have no place to stay and it’s getting darker by the minute–”

“Hey, slow up! I told you you should’ve let me book the trip for you.”

“I need help, not a scolding. Can you find me something? Please?”

“Just sayin’. Let’s see…”

The tapping of a keyboard drifted faintly through the phone along with Genova’s breathing and the occasional coffee slurp. Five minutes turning in circles under a street lamp was all Toni could manage before bursting out.

“Well??”

“Impatient as always.”

“You’re not the one standing with all your shit at gangland ground zero!”

“Hey, don’t snap at me! I’m doing you a favor. Anyway, I found a place in downtown called Stay. It looks decent, got good reviews and they have one room open.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Cool. I’ll set it up for you but don’t waste time getting over there. There’s a convention in town and if you wait, they might give your room away.”

“I’m going right now. Thanks, Gen.”

Toni hailed a passing cab and getting into its grungy back seat, breathed a sigh of relief. As dilapidated buildings, panhandlers and meth-head-filled doorways passed by her window, she felt like she’d made a narrow escape. The cab pulled up in front of a classic art deco building hung with a shockingly modern sign. She got out, paid the driver and pushed open the lobby’s heavy glass doors. Like the sign outside, the lobby was unexpectedly modern. Neon orange panels accented shiny white walls and set off blobby, Scandinavian-style furnishings. An orange plastic chandelier hovered like a knobby spacecraft above the sleek, white registration desk.

“Hello. Welcome to Stay,” said the pretty young girl behind the desk.

“Hi. A friend just made my reservation for me. Under the name Toni Mazur.”

“Ah yes, here you are. We have you down for one night in a single room. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

Toni studied the girl as she stared smilingly at the computer screen. She was reassuringly normal. Looking around the bright, spotless lobby the tension in Toni’s shoulders began to dissipate.

“Hey, if I decide to stay more than one night, can I do that?”

“Of course. In fact, most people who stay with us one night find it hard to leave,” she giggled, handing Toni a heavy, old-fashioned key. This is a historic building so we don’t have wi-fi in the rooms, but you can access it in the lobby. Also, breakfast comes with the room and it’s served every morning right through that door,” she said, gesturing to a white door at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. “If there’s anything we can do for you, please let us know. Enjoy your stay.”

Dragging her roller bag behind her, Toni moved to the elevator. The numbers above the door shifted up, then down, then up again. After pausing for a strangely long time, they finally began to descend. A faint “ding” heralded the arrival of the old mechanism and the doors opened to reveal a small lift dominated by a worn leather arm chair. Briefly, Toni considered walking up the stairs, but a second glance at her fourteenth floor room number convinced her it was better to squeeze in next to the lift’s strange occupant. The ride up was mostly uneventful—except for an unscheduled stop at the 4th floor—and Toni was pleased to see the modern style updates applied to the upper floors as well as the lower ones. She opened the door with the old-fashioned key and couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her room.

Like the lobby, it was spotless and featured simple Scandinavian furnishings in white and gray. The minimalism of it calmed her nerves. Putting her bags down, she opened the drapes and looked out at the twinkling lights of L.A.

Amazing how much friendlier it looks from up here.

Vampire Gloves

Well, no longer being gainfully employed leaves me plenty of time for sewing. I was given a piece of soft, fuzzy red fabric of the sort you would usually see made into Christmas stockings and made it into soft, fuzzy fingerless gloves. To try and play down the “Santa” feeling, I embellished them with salvaged black crochet trim and black, subtly sparkly buttons I got at SCRAP. I know they’re a bit sloppy here and there, but I’m just happy they fit, they’re comfortable, and they look halfway decent.

We wish you a vampy Christmas.