Thursday, April 23, 2009

Divorce Yourself

It was late spring in 1998 and all went from white to green in a manner of what felt like a few short days in Poland. Perhaps the only similarity between Montana and this country is how spring arrives. It comes like its name--sprouting out from layers of white and shades of dusted brown. I had been teaching English at a British school to students, all Polish, from the ages of six to sixty-five. Eleven years had passed since the Velvet Revolution, but even the six year olds told me that Poland has always been more like a radish; a thin covering of red, but mostly white--mostly democratic. And they were right. They were feisty about learning, very capable at arguing even at age six in broken English. All were determined to learn English with the hopes to move farther west in hopes to land jobs with the help of their English as if it was the one thing that could overshadow their passport.

Most of my students knew about America through television, but they wanted to know how many bathrooms I had in my house growing up and how many people did I have to share my bedroom with. But regardless of their questions, all of them were very diligent students. I was too. I studied Polish to read poetry not in translation, but mostly for practical purposes: to travel. And I did. I explored the beautiful fields and mountains and countryside of the great land that literally means, field. I took lessons twice a week with a tutor who spoke three other languages fluently and yet had never left her hometown of Kielce, known to Poles as the "knife city." Kielce was tough, but I loved it. Sure, it was mostly grey bloc houses, but it was surrounded by rolling hills and few people who spoke English. I loved the fact that it was the town where the Krakowian clergy would come to "catch some air." As if air was like butterflies, and all they had to do was walk around the rolling hills to fill their lungs before they went back to incense, stone and prayer. 

I travelled that spring a lot and felt like a clergyman myself. I just wanted to get out into the hills and remember that God wasn't something just to think about in buildings. I was anxious to find wildflowers and small towns along the Wisla and searched for churches in the hills with onion-domed roofs. I was going to stay past spring and into June to travel more in Eastern Europe. I had my thoughts on Odessa or maybe even Kiev, but my sister called and wanted to come and visit, travel with me for a few weeks and "see Europe." I recall trying to arrange plans via the phone, a static line over the Atlantic and all the way to Portland, Oregon where she lived and worked as a designer for Nike. She had two weeks and I thought we might go to Croatia and work our way along crumbling cities and the Adriatic to hopefully find ourselves on the Korcula islands. I was missing water and wanted to keep traveling in "the East", but she had it already settled: we were going to Switzerland.

She sent me maps and had everything planned out as to where we would stay and how we would get there. There was Davos and the Graubunden region and we were going to go to via Salzburg, the "home" of The Sound of Music, which is my sister's favorite movie. I tried to tell her that the Zloty (Polish currency) was not strong and that I would be limited with finances. Even though I made the same as an anesthesiologist in Poland, $300, a month: I knew it wouldn't go far in Switzerland. But she was determined. And my sister's determination is one thing no one can mess with. And so I agreed, mostly I didn't push it because it was my sister's first trip to Europe, but mostly I agreed because it was her first big adventure after her divorce.

She had married young and well, it just didn't work out as she had planned. I was in college when it happened and I don't recall much other than it was hard, a shock, not her choice and so she moved from Michigan to the west where my brother lived; Portland, Oregon. She arrived and worked her way from temp jobs in a lumber mill, to spraying perfume at department stores to finally landing a job in Nike. She told me on a train in Austria that she had lied in the interview for her job about knowing certain computer programs. Once she had the job, she would stay and teach herself after hours all that she needed to "already know." Say what you want about Nike, but what it gave my sister was confidence. It gave her a chance to start again, to believe in herself in the middle of a time when she could barely drive. She was distracted by sadness, by her changing identity from wife to single woman, but mostly I think she felt tattooed by a word I think she felt she had inscribed on herself: divorce.

And so when my sister said, "we are going to Switzerland." I did what I had always done with my sister; I went along and tried to use humor instead of arguing. Thankfully, I had something else I could finally add to my cache: the ability to speak foreign languages. When my sister arrived in Warsaw, I remember even though she was smiling, she looked tired, thin and worn from not just a transatlantic trip: she looked worn from life. Sure, I had been in Poland for a year where I watched a woman walk on her hands to the market and later drag her vegetables in a bag, wrapped around one of her limp legs. Life was hard in Poland, you pushed people on buses to get on, you ate standing up sometimes in soup kitchens, men cried in public even when they weren't drunk. But when I first saw my sister,  I just wanted to take her hand and not let go. For the first time, I wanted help her, I wanted to do something: I wanted be my sister's guide and more than just her joking side kick. 

And I was. While traveling from Krakow to Prague, we took an overnight train, a couchette, and I knew we would have to show our passports in the middle of the night, so I had mine and my sister's ready. In the middle of night, a knock came at the door with a stern voice following, "Pashport Kuntrol"  with a thick Polish accent. I opened the door, handed the documents to a young man in a grey suit , who stamped them, gave a nod, and then left. But when a second knock came, I became a bit suspicious. I opened the door and this time there were two men standing. Same procedure and when I closed the door, my sister had awakened and asked what was wrong. "Nothing" I said, "I think just a bunch of curious bored passport controllers who want to see some girls in pajamas." By the third time there was a knock, I opened the door and four men were standing there. I decided to not be quiet and use some of the words my Polish tutor had taught me in whispers in her house.  I wasn't shy or rude, but directly asked them in Polish, "Christ, do you really need four controllers to wake us up three times? I think you just want to see two American girls in their pajamas and not just our passports?" Their mouths dropped and they scurried away with their heads down. I smiled and closed the door. I turned to see my sister on the top bunk laughing so hard she almost fell out. We still laugh about that scene of men, even today. 

There were more scenes from that trip that we both hold on to: our first funicular ride up into the Alps, eating chocolate in St. Moritz, and braiding my sister's hair to look like Heidi before we climbed up past cows and alpine homes with weathered window boxes, up into the clouded mountains, up into what feels like the atrium of the earth, up to the attic of Europe. At the top of the Alps, you feel you are beyond birds, seasons, and even time--where it is all snow, rock and wind. Here, it is where rivers, grass, and meadows and maybe even where humans began. It is no wonder, Graubunden, translates as The League (or state) of God's House. 

Maybe I'm being a bit too metaphysical, but what I know was in the middle of that summer, my sister and I began again. We became something different to each other; we became friends. This is the beauty of family because it is defined by relationships.  Maybe you aren't close to a sibling or even a parent when you are younger, but through time and sometimes a birth, a death, maturity or just a trip you can change the dynamics of your relationship. Relationships shift and change, just like plate tectonics. Sometimes in the middle of our lives we begin to see even ourselves differently, we can grow, we can even be different to those in our family. We can divorce ourselves from old roles, or old habits that maybe just don't work anymore. We can re-invent even our family dynamics, even in the middle of our lives. I feel pretty lucky. My sister and I got to do it while we climbed mountains and ate Swiss chocolate.

We made more trips together, more meetings in foreign airports, more travels filled with scenes we still laugh about, like the time we hitchhiked in Northern Italy, where I chatted with the driver in Italian while my sister sat in the back seat. When he dropped us off at our hotel, she said, "He seemed nice." waving.

 "Really?" I said, slapping the door. "We argued the whole time. He complained about giving us a ride and I told him to lighten up. He had a story to tell his friends for days about two young American girls he picked up. That guy was a total jerk." 

"Oh, you sounded like you were friends." she said laughing.

"No way. I think Italian makes even arguments sound pretty." 

Besides our different roles while we travel, my sister and I both love to explore markets and eat well and eat anything wherever we go. This recipe is one that I always give credit to my sister for either inventing or mimicking from one of her own trips she took to Italy with her husband. These olives outshine any roasted olive recipe that I know of and have been a staple in my house and they taste great in the middle of any season. Enjoy.

Becky's Roasted Olives

3 to 4 cups of olives, a mix of green and black brine-cured olives, pits left in
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, cut up
1/2 teaspoon of orange or tangerine zest
1/2 cup of olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 300 
2. mix all of the above ingredients in a bowl, (can be put in the fridge for a few hours to marinade too.)
3. put olives in a roasting pan and over with foil
4. roast for about an hour


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