Saturday, 21 February 2015

Poland - Krakow and Warsaw

This is an account of my trip to Poland - Krakow and Warsaw - in 2011 and contains a couple of important conclusions (naah, not really!)   

Autumn colours in Poland

In November 2011 we had a work meeting in Warsaw and I decided to take a few additional days to combine it with a private trip -  a weekend in Krakow and then travel back to Warsaw on Monday for the meeting. I left Amsterdam nervous and in a bad mood - these work meetings were always a bit annoying, I didn't know if Polish people speak English, if it's clear how to get around, if there are signs in English... And I hate airports and I was further annoyed at Schiphol from all the crowds, lines, waiting... But as soon as I landed at Warsaw Chopin airport, my annoyance started subsiding. It quickly became clear where to take the bus to the train station and how to buy a ticket. One thing that made my whole stay especially amusing was the Polish language - as a Slavic language it's both close enough to my native Bulgarian to be able to understand certain words and at the same time distant enough to not be able to understand it correctly.. One of the first bus stops after the airport was called "Zwirki i Wiguri" and I had to laugh because in Bulgarian this sounds like "Blowjobs and shapes". The idea that there is such a place/street in Warsaw was funny. Then I noticed the date written on the display in the bus - it was 4 listopad (November). I knew that most Slavic languages use Slavic names for the months of the year, but in Bulgarian we use the Latin names and to me listopad (which literally means "leaf fall") was a natural phenomenon, not a month and I had to laugh again. At the train station there were machines for buying train tickets (unlike in Bulgaria) with menus in English, so this part went well too. I boarded the train to Krakow, which was a bit dirty and full and I had to stay in the corridor for four hours but I just played some music on my phone and watched the nature outside. Outside was sunny and the listopad colours of the Polish landscape were captivating. I'm normally not a romantic person who even notices autumn but for some reason I couldn't get enough of the combination of yellow, red and green that I was seeing outside. 

And so the four hours went by quickly. I arrived in Krakow and headed for the main square. I was going to stay with someone from Couchsurf - Robert - and we had agreed to meet there. It was around 5pm and getting dark and cold and Robert was running late but I was enjoying the main square. It seemed very aristocratic, well maintained and extremely cute. I thought that normally, after the crowds and the waiting at Schiphol, the four-hour train travel in the corridor and waiting for someone for two hours in the cold I would've been on the verge of a nervous breakdown and yet I was feeling completely calm and happy. So unexpected! 

Robert finally arrived and we headed off to his place. He was around my age, small and skinny, talking very fast, and gay (well, I found him in a gay group on Couchsurf). He told me he had been to Bulgaria and actually his first boyfriend was Bulgarian - a certain Danny. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned a few other things about Danny, like where he was born and what he was studying and ... it turned out I knew him too. Not only did I know Danny, he had been my boyfriend too, and in the same year, no less! [[There's a word in Bulgarian - badjanak - which in principle means "brother-in-law" but specifically the relationship between the husbands of two sisters. In slang it's used for two men who've slept with the same woman and, of course, in the gay world - two men who've slept with the same man]]. Now what are the odds that I'll go to Krakow, Poland, and the first guy a meet is my "badjanak"? I couldn't help but wonder, was the world really so small or was I really so ... experienced (let's say)? Perhaps a little of both but this coincidence continues to amuse me to this day. 

A monument of Joan Paula II ... 
I didn't do much touristy stuff in Krakow - I didn't go to Auschwitz or the Schindler factory - this is not for me. Instead I mostly just walked around, enjoying the unusually warm autumn days and laughing at the Polish language. Pope John Paul II, whose name in Polish is Jan Pawel, lived in Krakow and there were different places named after him - boulevards, squares... But when you decline his name in the genitive case (as in "boulevard of John Paul") it becomes Jana Pawla, which in Bulgarian would be a woman's name - like Joan Paula in English. In my silliness I imagined his gay buddies from the seminary calling him that :D In the interest of brevity, I'll just say that Krakow is a beautiful city and you should go see it for yourselves! 

On Monday I took the train back to Warsaw for our meeting. Warsaw reminded me a bit of Sofia (Bulgaria) - mostly dirty, noisy, chaotic and crowded. But a bit worse - since it had been largely destroyed during Word War II and then "rebuilt" by the communists, in the city centre you could see one next to  the other classical buildings, Stalinist buildings, modern glass business buildings and shopping malls and 20-storey ugly communist blocks of flats - a real insult to the senses! Nevertheless, Warsaw is worth visiting too - this is where the democratic changes in Eastern Europe began with Solidarność, there were also monuments of Copernicus, Marie Curie, again Joan Paula II and the very cute old town (photo above). So on Friday, after our meeting had ended, my colleague and I, together with a colleague from the OSCE ODIHR - Astrid - decided to take a walk around and spent most of our time in the old town. My flight was on the next day because I wanted to spend one more day in Warsaw, which was the national holiday - Independence Day (11 November) - and stay again with a guy from Couchsurf - Pawel. My colleague eventually left for the airport and Astrid and I continued our walk through the city. I was supposed to meet with my Couchsurf host around 6 pm near Constitution square and we headed in that direction. Now I don't know why I was thinking it may be interesting to stay for Poland's national holiday - maybe I was expecting something like the Dutch national holiday in Amsterdam - a sea of people dressed in orange, drinking beer and partying. I was so naïve! 

It turned out there was a nationalistic march planned, precisely on and around Constitution square and, to make things worse, also an anarchistic counter-march to protest against the nationalists. Nothing good can come out of this and soon Astrid and I found ourselves in a horrifying place - there were nationalists dressed in black running around breaking car glasses and shop windows and riot police clashing with them and arresting them... This photo shows part of what was happening on that day and I had to wonder if I would get beaten up by Polish nationalists for no reason.. Eventually Astrid and I found shelter in a nearby café and waited there for my host to come and pick me up. 

Pawel, who presented himself as Paul, finally came. We walked to his car and then drove to his house, which was on the outskirts of Warsaw. Pawel was in his early twenties, also gay, very sexy and well groomed but it quickly became clear that we didn't really have much in common and had nothing to say to each other. Back at his place he mostly watched TV reports of the nationalist march and clashes with the police, which seemed almost like Poland was in a civil war. I was playing with my iPad and waiting for time to pass by. A couple of hours later Pawel went to a party with his boyfriend but told me that his brother and his brother's girlfriend are sleeping in the house and will probably wake up soon. And I'm glad they did. Pawel and his brother were fraternal twins and his brother's name was ... surprise surprise - Piotr (or Peter, in English - it figures in Catholic Poland). Piotr was straight and not as sexy and well groomed as Pawel, but actually much more interesting and chatty. When I told him I live in Amsterdam, he immediately took out some weed and we spent the evening smoking, chatting and laughing. I made a mental note to myself: the sexy gay twin is not necessarily more interesting than the not-so-sexy straight twin! 

On the next morning, I took a cab to the airport and returned to Amsterdam. 

All my photos from Poland can be seen on Facebook.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Dutch TV station apologises for interview with a "cured" gay man

This is more or less a translation of an article in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. I've included my own contribution where I thought was necessary and my own thoughts on the case afterwards. 

Thony. Photo from his Intagme profile
A week ago the Dutch TV channel EO (Evangelische Omroep - Evangelical Broadcast) published on its youth website BEAM an interview (in Dutch) with the 19-year-old Thony Kraamer, who says that God helped him put an end to his gay lifestyle. The interview caused a lot of reactions and a storm of criticism from individuals and organisations. 

In the interview Thony tells about his life in the gay scene: "Every weekend I was in the sleaziest bars and clubs. I would go up on the dance floor, dress up as a girl, use hard drugs, have one boyfriend after another and still cheat on them... I did literally everything that God has forbidden."

Then he says he decided never again to have gay relations: "Whether I'll live my life as a single man or maybe find a wife, I'm looking positively towards the future. I'm giving my life to God."

EO received a storm of criticism after publishing the interview. Kraamer's statements were considered as reinforcing a stereotypical and negative image of homosexuality. 

Today (17 February) EO apologised for the interview. In its statement, the channel said that the aim of BEAM was to tell different stories and opinions and to think, together with its audience, what these stories mean to them: "But it didn't work. Thony's intense story brought to many homosexual readers associations with rejection, estrangement and grief. This should never be the consequence of a personal story, regardless of our good intentions... if we have hurt you, we are very sorry."

So this was the article and I have to say, hats off to the EO for the apology. I followed part of the Twitter storm that fell on them a few days ago and they were very careful to reply to most Tweets respectfully and say things like "this is just one personal story, we also have other stories, and we think they should be heard". And this is admirable for a Christian TV station and indeed the different stories of young people should be heard. If anything, I'm more angry at Thony and I want to share some thoughts about the whole debacle. 

If you read the interview from the link above (e.g. with Google translate), it actually starts off quite nicely - Thony felt different all his life, played with dolls, dressed up in girls' clothes, didn't like his first kiss with a girl... Then (I don't know when - I guess 16-18 years old?) he came out as gay on Facebook and received very positive reactions from his friends and classmates. Something that many people don't have! Then apparently his "crazy gay life" began - going to bars and clubs, doing drugs, having sex with random guys, boyfriend after boyfriend, webcamming for money... Until he felt he had hit rock bottom.

So first of all, Thony seems to be rather transgender/gender-dysphoric than a gay boy. By his own admission, he dressed up in women's clothes, wanted to be a woman and even asked his house doctor for a referral to the "gender team". Perhaps the clubs, drugs and promiscuity were just an acting out of his anxiety over his gender dysphoria? Perhaps if he had had more support and understanding, both from himself and his family, he would've transitioned and lived a happy life as a woman? Instead of denying everything he is and "giving his life to God". As if gay/transgender is incompatible with God... 

But let's say he is a gay boy, since he considers his previous life to have been gay. In my opinion 18-19-year-olds are expected, or at least excused, to live a crazy life of promiscuity, drugs and clubs (always in moderation, boys!!). The realisation that this is not the life you want should come later. But at whatever age, this realisation should lead you to focus more on yourself, your personal development, education, career and improved relationships with people, in other words, find "the golden mean". Not go from one extreme - parties, drugs and sex, to the other - celibacy and denial of your sexual desires. Most of life, most of happiness, is somewhere in between the extremes. 

But figuring out where the "golden mean" is and how you can be happy there takes wisdom and maturity, which a 19-year-old typically doesn't have. And I have the feeling that Thony's "rebirth" as a God-fearing, law-abiding, hetero-wannabe was strongly encouraged, if not forced, by outside - family or church community. And to be honest, I also have the feeling it won't last forever... 

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.
You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.

Monday, 16 February 2015


Photo: Wikipedia (duh!)
I love baking, especially when I'm bored in the weekend and Sacher is one of my favourite cakes to make. It's sweet and at the same time very slightly bitter and sour and not too complicated to make. I base my recipe, with slight changes, on one from a Russian website, which I'll translate here for those who don't speak Russian. 

250 gr. dark chocolate (I use 75% cocoa)
125 gr. unsalted butter, softened
125 gr. sugar (I use white - regular or caster) 
75 gr. plain flour
4 eggs, whites and yolk separated
2 tbs cocoa powder
1 tbs rum/cognac 
1 pack baking powder (16 gr) 
Apricot jam (I buy a 450-gram jar and it's enough). 

These quantities fit nicely into an 18-cm springform pan and can serve eight people. If you want more or have a bigger pan - adjust the quantities. 

Melt 125 grams of the dark chocolate using water bath (or, if like me you don't know how to do it - using the microwave at low) and set aside. 

Beat the soft butter together with the sugar until fluffy, then add the melted chocolate and the four yolks and stir. Add the cocoa, rum, baking powder and flour and stir. 

Beat the egg whites to a foam and combine with the chocolate mix. 

Grease the pan and cover the bottom and sides with baking paper. Pour the batter in the form and bake 45-50 minutes at 180 degrees. To make sure it's ready - insert a toothpick in the middle and if it comes out clean - the cake is ready. Leave to cool. 

When the cake has cooled, cut it horizontally through the middle with a long knife or a thread and spread the apricot jam over the bottom layer, then place the top layer. Melt the remaining 125 gr of dark chocolate and spread evenly on the top and sides. Enjoy! 

And here is my, not so fancy, result