Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Pretty but Perplexing Polish Idiom, or How I Fared Linguistically in Poland (and Germany)

Author’s note: Though I’m in Toronto now and it’s 2018, I wrote most of this post from Poland. I hope you enjoy! Oh, and if you want to catch up on what preceded this post, read this post first. Thanks!

Dzień dobry, my friends, and dzięnki for comin’ back here.

In my last post, I left you here: “I didn’t know what to expect, in this land that is still foreign to me, and my expectations have been far surpassed.” Indeed, still in Poland, I found myself, for the first time, in a country whose language I did not speak. Sure, this summer, I went to Germany and I don’t speak German, but even the Germans who said to us, “I don’t speak English very well” spoke English really well. So, we got around and made ourselves understood quite easily. And since we frequented only vegan restaurants and falafel joints, we were able to order anything we wanted from the former places with comfort and security, even if we did not share a mutual language with the staff there, and the falafel friends spoke a decent amount of English (that, and falafel is usually a pretty safe vegan bet). Additionally, with English being a Germanic language, we managed to accumulate a few key phrases for our travelling, and I’m still most proud of learning and using Entschuldigung in the correct circumstances, because that is a very long word, guys.

Okay, well, since I’m here, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to share a few shots of our trip to Köln for our buddy’s wedding this summer. Here ya go:

Basically, organic Nutella, but without trademark infringement or anything of the sort. It was so tasty that I bought another jar and two more of another brand... which all got confiscated when I was going through security in Frankfurt. Rest in peace, Bionella. You were good. (She was! Look how happy I am!)

The view from our apartment in Köln, in a building that, we learnt, is not well-liked—to put it lightly—by locals and that is thought to be sketchy. We enjoyed it and the view that it afforded; it is the only building of such grandeur, in terms of height, in the city. I meditated on two occasions on the terrifyingly high balcony, spending a big chunk of the meditation pondering and making peace with my potential demise should the balcony decide to give in to gravity under my weight. (Welcome to my mind.)

Me and Dane in front of the impeccably beauteous and beautifully hideous/hideously beautiful Gothic structure of the basilica in Köln. It is the first thing that greets you as you exit the train station and it is an architectural marvel. I love it.

The little things are the big things.

We made a point to see this structure as often as possible and at different times of day. It is truly breathtaking and terrifying at the same time.

I mean, look at it! Good lord! So spiky!

Vegan sushi all day, e’er day, at Maki Maki Sushi Green

Vegan schnitzel! In Germany! Broooooooooo. This food came from a restaurant that was also housed in a wellness/meditation facility; I think it was Osho’s Place. It was wicked. The place was bright and welcoming and this is where I got to say Entschuldigung in the correct context. Woo!

On our perambulations through the city, we just, you know, happened upon the Rhine, and these are the buildings that face it. They look particularly German, so we wanted to capture that.

El Rhino (not really. It is just the Rhine)

Dane having a particularly German experience at what became our favourite restaurant (we ate there twice): Signor Verde.
We had a blast there. We ended up having to leave a day early and, thus, bolted to the airport at three a.m. after having partied hard at our friend’s wedding because we were flying standby and our only chance to get home before Labour Day was, like, six hours after we got to our Air BnB from the wedding—and we needed to fly out of Frankfurt and not Köln, so we needed to catch a train at 4 a.m. to get to our 9 a.m. flight, and even then, we didn’t know if we would get on. If we hadn’t caught that flight [spoiler], we’d have been stuck in Europe for at least another five days. It was bonkers.

***

So, as I was saying, back in Poland (not Germany; I apologize for jumping back and forth in time and geoegraphy!), I couldn’t even pretend to know what the eff was going on linguistically. I’d started a few months ago to study Polish with the Duolingo app (which was my guide pre-Germany), and I think I abandoned my study after learning maybe seven words. I remember kobieta (‘woman’), mleko (‘milk’), and thought I remembered the word for ‘apple’, but I guess I do not. Oh, well. (I also do not remember anything from the summer of 2013 that I spent intensively learning ecclesiastical Latin, so, I am unsure as to what this says about the linguistic capabilities of one who is dedicated to language...)

Anyway, in terms of linguistic aptitude in this land whose language has no resemblance to the Romance languages I’ve studied in depth over the years, I acquired only a very loose handle on wegańska (‘vegan’, though I’m not sure about what gender, number, or case this is), Dzień dobry (‘greetings’, ‘good morning’, and ‘good afternoon’), Dobranoc (‘good night’ [this one is easy for me to remember because the noc is pronounced like ‘notes’, and that sounds a little bit like Italian notte]), dzięnkuję/dzięnki (‘thank you’/‘thanks’), na zdrowie (‘Cheers!’ or ‘To health!’), cześć (‘Hi’ or ‘Bye’ [another easy one to remember—but not to pronounce—because ciao works the same way in Italian]), tak (‘yes’), nie (‘no’), and proszę (‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’—again, much like Italian prego, where it can mean ‘please’ [as in ‘please proceed’ or ‘go ahead’] and ‘you’re welcome’).

This is a screenshot I saved on my phone while waiting for Dane at the airport. I took fastidious notes, too (I learn best by writing).
Christina does not mess around. 
... scratch that: Christina does mess around. (She is very mature.)
And then there’s niegazowoda or something like that, which appears on bottles of water devoid of carbonation; all I remember is the description for uncarbonated water starts with nie for ‘no(t)’ and ends with woda for ‘water’. This is important if you find carbonated water to be vile-tasting, like Dane and I do. And in most parts of Europe, in my experience, drinking from the tap just is not the norm. (Isn’t it funny that carbonated water is the default here, such that its still/uncarbonated variant features the negation in its description, rather than “carbonated” being the descriptor for water with added carbonation? [Another side note: Dane was once called a “diva” by some of his Polish friends for requesting/preferring non-fizzy water. Ha! Talk about flipping stereotypes—that is, since, in North America, one might call someone preferring fizzy water a diva. Heh.])

Back to expectations being far surpassed (see the beginning of this post for the last line of the previous post. Like I said: I go on tangents and almost this entire post is one): I’m thinking specifically about the locale, the production, and, as this is a vegan blog, the vegan food. (I’ll come back to the food in its own separate post, because there is a lot to say and this is already becoming lengthy.) After day 1 of the “Challenger,” audiences were unanimous in their praises of the high production quality and the meticulous and “over and above” manner in which the stage was literally set for this immersion experience in Moszna Castle, the perfect stand-in for Emhyr’s castle (Emhyr being a central antagonist in the Witcher game series). A large community that can be notoriously hard to please (I’m not a gamer, but this is what I hear from the gamers in my life) was, well, delightfully pleased and even downright celebratory and singing CDPR’s praises publicly.

CDPR, evidently, listens well to fans and doesn’t mess around; they were right on the mark, with their inclusion of cosplayers and musicians; a premium production team and kickass set designers and stylists; hugely talented and enthusiastic commentators and hosts (please excuse my bias); and a breathtaking locale.

The dining hall was illuminated by candles and decorated for the festive celebration following the final day of the tournament.

The winner of the tournament, Freddybabes, being interviewed and photographed by journalists from China

Dane chatting with one of the competitors, Kolemoen, after the tournament. A cosplayer can be seen in the background, sporting the Nilfgaard logo or crest.

A cosplayer dressed as Ciri. I spoke with her after the tournament and she was super rad, very kind, and wonderfully pretty.

After the production, there was a lot of clean-up but also of milling-around for those not involved in the clean-up. This is also the spot where Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray hosted and interviewed players.
The desk of the casters and analyst

Ciri and Emhyr (apparently, this is a social anachronism of sorts—that is, according to Witcher lore, these two would not, under normal circumstances, share space). The Emhyr cosplayer was also really cool and super kind and approachable... when not in costume. Haha.

Emhyr greeting us upon our arrival to Moszna Castle—or his castle, for this event.

Guards and Bart the Bard (also a spectacularly kind individual) welcoming us with song and wit to Moszna Castle at dusk

The out-of-place ad must be appreciated for its out-of-place-ness amidst this immersive experience.

CDPR spared no expense to ensure that this event be run smoothly and picturesquely; it will surely always be an event for the organizers and participants to remember with pride, fondness, excitement, and satisfaction. I can already see this in Dane’s description of his own performance, but his immense talent, focus, and preparation can take him only so far. Thanks to the attentive support and encouragement of the CDPR team, he and his casting mates perform with exquisite ease, making the job look effortless.

And this was even amidst a “plague” that tore through Moszna Castle with abandon on the first days there!

This seems like a good spot to conclude.

(Ha!)

To be continued…

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see ya soon.

Plague-free hugs and gratitude,

Kris

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Challenger: Some Backstory on Gwent and Dane’s Super-Rad Involvement with CDPR

Author’s note: I am posting this a month after the event took place. (Today is January 16, 2018; the competition occurred on December 16 and 17, 2017. So, happy New Year! I hope you had a sweet and peaceful holiday. Thanks in advance for reading.)

Well, hey. Welcome back.

Rather awkwardly, I left you hanging in this magnificent place without a guide:

Moszna Castle
My bad. So, I should probably explain, first, where I am; then, I should tell you why I’m here. It’s a little strange, perhaps, for this PhD student of Italian Studies with no real ties to Poland apart from working as the English-language editor of a Polish academic journal to be in Poland, let alone in a remote town about 40 minutes from any type of city centre.


With Moszna Castle at my back, on two occasions, I simply walked until I found paths winding through a park and wooded area. It truly was a peaceful, tranquil place.


These types of apparatuses were literally off the beaten path and were all rusty and weirded me the eff out.


Ah... A castle at sunset is definitely magnificently elegant and less creepy than a castle at twilight.

Please allow me to explain.

As I mentioned in this blog post, about a year and a half ago, my husband, Dane, quit his full-time job to pursue his dream of writing a book. While he researched and attended writing classes and wrote, he had the idea of creating a podcast. He had always fantasized about being a broadcaster of some sort, having grown up watching Major League Baseball and having looked up to and admired the commentators narrating the plays over the radio.

That was one of the first things I learnt about Dane: he listened to baseball on AM radio—“like an old man,” I thought at the time. But over the years (we’ve been together since 2013), after learning from Dane about baseball and coming to understand the abstract plays described over the airwaves, I, too, have grown fond of baseball on the radio—and in person! In addition to Dane’s wish to emulate his broadcasting heroes, Dane also has a natural talent for public speaking, excelling as an orator throughout his college years and earning continual praise in his previous career in advertising for his enthusiastic, clear, and professional presentation skills.

Dane on Day 2 of the Gwent “Challenger”

Dane with his co-caster, Miguel

Lookin’ super slick for the camera on Day 1

All that said, Dane began a podcast in the fall of 2016 on a game that hadn’t even been released yet, an online game based on The Witcher franchise, created by CD Projekt Red (CDPR). There was a lot of hype and expectation surrounding the release of this game called Gwent, which had actually been a game within The Witcher, one that was beloved by fans and was to become a standalone online competitive card game. The first few episodes of the podcast were recorded solo by Dane until he was joined by a new friend, whom he’d made online in the Gwent community, a jovial American dude named Josh “Greyboxer.” They recorded one episode a week for about a year, accumulating a humble but loyal fanbase of dedicated listeners, a wonderful community that continues to grow with each of Dane’s CDPR appearances. Mere months after the podcast’s inauguration and the release of Gwent in its closed-beta form, Dane and Josh were invited to Warsaw, Poland, to CDPR studios, along with a small number of other content creators. At that point (almost exactly a year ago, to the day!), it was a gigantically flattering honour and privilege, but Dane did not know that that invitation was more than a one-time opportunity, or that it would lead to much more than just a great story. (Indeed, as I update this post on January 16, 2018, Dane is preparing for his late-night departure today for Warsaw, as he will be casting another Gwent tournament this weekend.)

Four months later (May 2017), with several months of full-time Gwent streaming on Twitch.tv under his belt, along with some experience playing in and casting Gwent tournaments hosted by community members, Dane was en route to cast his first official Gwent tournament in Katowice, Poland. This was badass on its own, of course, but what was truly the icing on the literal cake was that this tournament, the first Gwent “Challenger,” had its final day culminating on Dane’s birthday. The CDPR crew and the participants in the event gathered in a room to surprise Dane with a cake and they sang “happy birthday” to him, Dane beside himself with joy. This was above and beyond.

More than half a dozen events later, both official (by CDPR) and licensed (like “Gwentslams” hosted by Lifecoach and Wifecoach in Vienna), this benevolence, generosity, kindness, and professionalism have proven to be trademarks of CD Projekt Red and the Gwent community.

As I type this blog in our room in Moszna Castle in Poland, with the second “Challenger” wrapping up and tensions high ($35 000 USD is on the line for the two players facing off in the finals, with a $100 000 USD prize pool for all eight participants), I, too, am a beneficiary of this generosity. With Dane as one of the four commentators/(shout)casters of this event, and with my teaching schedule having opened up on December 7, it was the first time and the perfect time for me to pack my bags and head across the ocean to witness Dane in his element. I didn’t know what to expect, in this land that is still foreign to me, and my expectations have been far surpassed.

Let me leave you here for now, for your own sake, since you’ve been kind enough to read and view this far down the page. In my next post, I’ll start with some linguistic ponderings, namely some thoughts about how nutso-bananas the Polish language is. Ha! But, for now, it is clear how I got here.

See you soon,

Kris

P.S. Here are a few specifically Gwenty/Witcher-y photos, though I will share some more in an upcoming post.

As they were getting the competitors’ area set up

Nilfgaardian knights, as seen on screen (but they were actually just around the corner from the viewing room at the tournament)

This is displayed in the castle. “Witcher School” is held twice a year, I believe, at Moszna Castle. Cool, eh?

Some of us in the viewing room during the event

Dane before getting all snazzied-up for the camera

Some mysterious potions and elixirs...

Gasp!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Proceeding through Prossedi: Food, Family, and Fantastic Territories

My late paternal grandparents were born in Prossedi, Latina, this town of just over a thousand inhabitants. Perhaps it housed many more before its citizens were drawn to neighbouring towns and bigger cities to be closer to amenities, work, and culture. Still, this paesino has two bars; a handful of shops for food, clothing, and household necessities; a pizzeria; a bed and breakfast; at least two churches; and maybe the best restaurant in all of Italy, run by my cousin and her husband.

Sure, sure, you may call me biased, but each time I go there, the staff blows my mind by creating things off-menu for our vegan preferences. After being vegan for 14 years, I’ve endured my share of half-assed meals lacking even the minimal amount of inspiration or creativity (pasta primavera and grilled veggies are the usual stand-ins), not to mention any source of protein; worse still, there have been situations in which a salad or French fries or the free bread offered were the only vegan options, with chefs insisting nothing else can be done. To be clear, this is usually the case in Canada; in most traditional spots in Italy, there is something for everyone, since the ingredients used are fresh and unprocessed and the fat of choice for stir-fried veggies is good old olive oil.

But a mark of true skill is that of the chef concocting culinary works of genius in a relatively short amount of time (ratings on the Osteria Persei TripAdvisor page often feature the “slowness” complaint, but what were these diners expecting at a proud “slow food” restaurant?) with the freshest ingredients on hand for a clientele brimming with anxious curiosity. (Check out my last blog post for images of the wondrous meals that the Osteria Persei cooked up for me and Dane in 2015.) Long breaths of time separate each course, allowing diners to savour the nuances in the flavours of their food, calmly sip on a glass of local wine, and take in the paesaggio that graces their eyesight. On most visits, I’ve eaten outside, as the restaurant has a spacious and marvellous terrace overlooking the valleys of Prossedi, but the intimate interior is equally satisfying, decorated with care and intention by the proprietors. Wine bottles line the wall, as do cookbooks and annual directories of “Slow Food” restaurants, in which Osteria Persei is listed and celebrated.




On this most recent visit, I did not eat a full meal, as I had just indulged in my great aunt’s fabulous cooking at her humble home just a few steps away; rather, on this occasion, I merely accompanied my cousin to the restaurant and spent time at a table with her between her bouts of aiding her staff to welcome, seat, and cash out customers. During my four-hour stay (that sounds like a long time to sit in a restaurant without eating), I got to taste a Malvasia white wine from 2009 (my cousin said that you don’t normally age white wines, but after smelling and tasting it first, she served it and it proved to be a real treat), pour some rocking local olive oil over some house-made bread (the deep green hue of the olive oil was pleasing to the eye and to the palate), chow down on ciambelline, and chase the latter down with my favourite beverage of all: Italian espresso.
            


Before the end of the night, as dinner was winding down, my cousin poured a number of the guests, including myself, a glass of white vin santo, or Italian dessert wine (vin santo literally means “holy wine”). It was delightful, and we got into a conversation about Canadian ice wines, as that was the closest comparison in my experience. My cousin explained that the way that this wine was made was similar, but given the different climates of Italy and Canada, instead of making vin santo with frozen grapes, vin santo comes from grapes that have dried on the vines late in the season and whose sweetness is intensified in the process. (For more information, check this web site: http://www.yourguidetoitaly.com/italian-sweet-dessert-wines.html). All these luxuries with which I was regaled aside, the best part of that evening was calmly observing the hustle and bustle of the restaurant while being surrounded by the boisterous, festive talk of the patrons, who were in town to take in the annual Sagra della salsiccia (literally a sausage festival—or sausage party, for a more amusing variant).

Despite being vegan and, thus, not wishing to consume the celebrated food at the sagra, I was still very happy to visit the piazza where the festival took place with my great aunt earlier that evening. The piazza, normally quite tranquil in the winter, burst with boisterous activity: locals and people from farther away came together, huddled in their winter coats. It doesn’t get very cold in this part of Italy—they don’t really even get any snow—but it was abnormally cold on this weekend. The temperature hovered above the freezing mark that day, with the next days having highs of close to 15 degrees Celsius.
            
It was not only sausage that was being offered: stalls of merchants sat behind their wares, which ranged from socks and other apparel; personalized and personalizable gift items; locally-produced tartufo and olive oils; and artisanal baked goods. It was this last set of goods that caught my eye, especially since, thanks to my late Nonna, I was quite familiar with the ciambelline being sold, which are, by default, vegan. These were much smaller than the ones in which my Nonna specialized (some of which, by some fluke, still reside in my freezer, her craftswomanship eternally preserved). The merchant urged us to sample them, and they were exquisite: this variety nearly melted in my mouth. I was sold—well, travelling with family, I should say that my great aunt was sold, because she didn’t even give me a chance to protest at her quick decision to buy them for me. (This happened every time on this trip, even when I asked my cousin to lead me to a grocery store so I could procure a few jars of Valsoia chocolate-hazelnut spread [I got two and one is already half done]. When we got to the cash, she grabbed them from me, saying it would be silly to make two bills. My relatives need to visit me in Canada so I can return their immense generosity!) When it came time to pack the cookies at my departure, my great aunt insisted that I store them with great care, as they are delicate and fragile.

This is a variety closer to the kind my Nonna made, in terms of size and ingredients. Mbriachelle is a dialect word that means, if I understand correctly, “little drunken ones” (ubriacarsi in standard Italian means “to get drunk,” and the -ella ending makes it diminutive and cute). They have this name and connotation because they contain wine!
            
These are the teeny fragile guys. Ciambelle al vino means “doughnut-shaped wine cookies.”
Now, let’s go back to the restaurant, a similarly hopping establishment but one that was much more intimate… (I warned you that we’d be hopping back and forth in time. Please bear with me.)
            
Sitting amongst the patrons of Osteria Persei but not actually being engaged in conversation with them was freeing, in that it allowed me to take in the culture in a way I haven’t been afforded before. I usually visit Italy with a companion (relatives or my husband) or am talking directly with family members; here, I was “a Canadian cousin visiting for a few days,” just a brief curiosity to those to whom I was introduced. When my cousin was working, I, entirely rapt, merely sat, listened, absorbed, and observed while culture cordially caressed my ears, lovingly tousled my presuppositions, and warmly and affably flowed around me. There was something magical about the experience—nay, spiritual. It was almost as though those four hours were spent in introspection and meditation, where I felt I could see reality, taste reality, feel reality, and be reality completely and utterly. It was a pure experience, and it might have been the best night of my short stay there. 

It was an important experience planned with intention in many ways: as I mentioned, I organized this trip in order to spend time with my paternal family and, in particular, my great uncle who is ill. Also, five years prior, I was in Prossedi for the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing; this year, I was there for the tenth, which had been haunting us on the calendar as soon as we flipped the page to December—to our own dismay and heartbreak. Halfway across the world, in a land so beloved by my father, I remembered his life, his passion, his joviality, his endurance, his magnificent spirit, surrounded by people sharing our blood and the values and traits passed down to us by my grandparents. My grandmother, who passed away in May of this year, always loved to hear stories of my visits to Prossedi, and her love and pride followed me like a distant companion as I crept around the stone-paved walkways of this magical town. With every glass we raised, my dad, my Nonna, and my Nonno were in my heart and on my mind.
            
My little cousin made me a Christmas tree! She is a perfectionist and was dissatisfied with the amount of space at the top to write her long name, so she tried again at the bottom. This kid draws all day!

Espresso and vegan cornetti all day. My dad notoriously consumed four or five espressos a day here, so I think he would have appreciated my indulgence. 

On the morning of my departure, I raced upstairs in the bed and breakfast to sneak a photo of the area where Dane proposed to me (there is usually a table where this wooden structure and umbrella-holder are).

Prossedi after the rainfall

My Nonna once told me that, when she was little, she and her sister would slide down the banister of this church as a way to amuse themselves. I love imagining this simple joy. 

There was time for me to paint with my buddy’s son during my visit to Rome, so that was cool. I’m typically kid-phobic, but this little human seemed to like me, so we got along pretty well, though I would have suggested that he paint this flower in another colour, had he welcomed my opinion.
A miniature model currently on display of the historic centre of Prossedi. The clock reflects the beginning of the piazza; through the archway under the clock is the way to the bed and breakfast and the Osteria.            
And this is where I am now:

Aaaaaaahhhh. Sun-drenched Moszna Castle!

Pretty pretty colours at sunset!

Nilfgaardian knights and the bard setting the scene for the Gwent Challenger
            
Okay, so, it’s very different. This whole castle might be able to eat the entire historic centre of Prossedi… four times? Well, you can look it up, if you like. That said, kicking it in a massive structure of stone is not so different from the repurposed church that housed me in Prossedi a few days ago, I guess, in terms of the chill that it inevitably keeps inside, the stories that the walls tell and also hold secret, and the long, winding staircases that open onto exciting foreign territories…
            
But it’s certainly very, very different and super friggin spectacular, to say the least. I’ll elaborate more in my next post. Right now, we are 20 minutes away from the opening of the second Gwent Challenger, and Dane is starting the show off. I will catch you so soon!
            
Until then, stay rad, my friends, and keep warm and smiley. Thanks for reading.
            
Hugs,

            
Kris