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#tbt Boston

Café Polonia’s Chef Brings Poland to Boston

Chef Hannah Bochynska dishes out traditional Polish food right in Dorchester.

From pierogis to potato pancakes, Café Polonia has the best Eastern European comfort foods.

Blink and you’ll miss Café Polonia. Small, unassuming and located in what is becoming less and less the “Polish triangle,” this old restaurant is warmly decorated with light wooden furniture and small lantern centerpieces.

table settings at cafe polonia, boston

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Bottles of Polish beer line the faux hearth in the north center of the restaurant, and jars of pickles and sauerkraut crowd the walls along with framed pictures and art.

 

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The manager, Michal Hryhorowicz, a man with honey colored eyes and a quiet, thickly accented voice, greeted us immediately and made us feel even cozier than the restaurant did. He brought to the table waters and fresh rye bread with a side of lard, bacon bits included.

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Michal

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“It smells like my grandma’s house in here,” said my friend of Polish descent who accompanied me to dine in Dorchester.

Everybody knows the rule: if it smells like Grandma made it, it’s authentic, and Café Polonia’s grandma is Hanna Bochynska, 51, from the Wielkapolska region in Poland.

Hanna is short, plump, and speaks only in Polish, visibly embarrassed by the extra attention, but seemingly accustomed to Michal translating for her. She has been working as Café Polonia’s chef since she arrived in Boston from Poland 44 and a half years ago. The recipes are the owners’, but Hanna has been making the same food since she was a child in Poland, working with her sister to help their mother feed the family.

“Our recipes are just like what women in Poland would make, everything from scratch,” said Michal.

The menu doesn’t change, and Hanna loves everything on it. “Polish food is delicious,” she said through Michal. Why try to change it? Her favorite thing to eat is a gypsy pancake, which is potato pancakes stuffed with Hungarian goulash.

She loves her work, she said with a smile, but hates dishwashing. When asked where she cooked before Café Polonia, she replied, “Home.”

Hanna works around 42 hours a week, which includes not only cooking, but also shopping for supplies at restaurant depot, cleaning, and making sure her kitchen is in the right shape. Her busy work life combined with her citizenship and English classes leave her no time for hobbies.

She calls herself a food technician. Food is important to her because it is both work and culture, and she likes knowing that the customer is satisfied. Hanna also prides herself on feeding her family the same things she serves her customers, only slightly healthier. A little less lard, a little more vegetables. Hanna has a 30-year-old son, who prefers to eat organically, and a 27-year-old daughter who has two daughters herself.

Do you like other types of food?

Oh, yes, she nods.

How about Chinese food?

Michal translates that she doesn’t even know what that is.

Where do you go when you go out to eat?

UNO or 99.

Almost 45 years in the United States, and she doesn’t know what Chinese food is. That’s impressive. The lady loves her Polish food.

Watching Hanna cook in her kitchen is like watching my mother cook in hers. She moves methodically, slicing the sausage, spooning potato pancake mix onto a hot skillet, boiling water. She wears a hair net to cover cropped chestnut brown hair, and a green polo, black jeans, worn brown loafers, and black-and-white striped socks. Michal repeats orders to her that he has written on a notepad quietly and in Polish. She nods, barely, and continues cooking, adding more sausage to the grill or more pierogis to the boiling water.

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There is something so exciting about watching grandma cook for you. You see all the deliciousness that goes into what you’re about to eat, and the anticipation is almost unbearable. I watched her create what I had ordered with Michal off the English side of the menu: the Polish Plate and Smoked Salmon Potato Pancake. As she plated the food, I hurried back to my seat, giddy as a girl on Christmas morning. Awaiting me was a complimentary beer called Zywiec, an amber-honey colored lager.

Three boiled pierogis topped with carmelized onions, grilled kielbasa on a bed of sauerkraut with bits of meat in it, stuffed eggplant smothered in “bigos” or hunter’s stew all came delightfully packaged on the Polish Plate. The potato pancakes came on a separate plate, and a few minutes later, Hanna sent out some Hungarian goulash to eat with the potato pancakes. I’m getting hungry just writing about this meal. Everything tasted like home, and I’m not even Polish.

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Potato Pancakes (Latkes) with smoked salmon
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Polish Plate

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Goulash
Goulash

611 Dorchester Ave

Boston, MA 02127

617.269.0110

$$

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Boston

Hell Has Frozen Over

Surviving Boston Winters is no easy feat.

From fear of being impaled by icicles to being stranded without the MBTA, the struggle has been really real.

It’s been 64 days in this frozen tundra they call Boston. I begin each day like the last, buried in a mountain of blankets like my city is buried under blankets of snow, fearing the moment when any uncovered skin meets the shocking draft from New England’s famous uninsulated windows and walls. I dress in a hurry, the muscles in my neck and back tensing as I shiver without the shelter of my bed. To prepare for my journey to the bus stop, I don a pair of leggings before I put on my jeans, and on top I wear a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, two sweatshirts, a heavy winter coat. Not to mention a hat, gloves, scarf, two pairs of socks and my finest Timberlands. Fur-lined hood stays erect. Layers upon layers, only to be removed within seconds of arriving at your destination, cast off to the side one at a time in a hurried, anxious, claustrophobic haze caused by strong indoor heating.

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I am not the only New Englander huddled against the cold on their daily commute, faces scrunched against the arctic gusts of wind biting the skin on our faces.

Northeast Snow

Every journey outside is treacherous. The monstrous snow banks are only growing in stature, stationary yetis to block your path and hinder your vision and tower over you like prison guards.

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even my pup hates snow banks
even my pup hates snow banks

Danger lurks with each step- some black ice here to land you on the flat of your back, potholes filled with slush there, waiting for you to wander into their filthy, icy abyss and soak you to your socks. Each day, I worry that one of the icicles hanging from the rooftops will truly be the death of me.

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A snow plowman might unknowingly swipe you while you break your back shoveling out your car as he tries in vain to control the ever-falling snow, a total of 72.6 inches in Boston, which they’re talking about dumping in the ocean just to get it off our streets. Then he’ll bury your car anew. And you’ll dig out a spot again and put chairs or boxes or whatever you can find in your spot while you’re at work so everyone knows that, by law, it’s your spot. And then someone will take your spot. And you’ll never leave your house again.

cars in snow

The time spent waiting during the daily commute is one of the worst parts. Waiting for your car to warm up, waiting for traffic to loosen. Waiting for the MBTA which has broken down a million times that day and will break down a million more. And all the while you are cold to your core, something inside you has frozen so that you can survive the winter, and only Dunkin Donuts can thaw out your freezer burned soul a little. Sometimes we find humor in our situations, laughing at the mess our city has made of our public transportation, grasping each other for support on the T as any one of the trains jerks forward, the rusted gears and brakes obvious with every metal stutter. But for the most part, we turn against each other, hoping only that we will make it onto this train or bus or into that lane. Me, me, me. I have to get to work on time. Fuck everyone else. Here, have a shoulder in your ribs. Don’t mind my foot tripping you. Stand behind the yellow line? Yeah, OK. I’ll DIE if I don’t get on this train.

We are starting to go insane. You can do some serious flirting before realizing the person you’re courting is actually homeless. Please are even jumping out of apartment windows and into snow banks for sport. We’ve found a way to think of flannels as not only acceptable evening-wear, but even as something sexy to just throw on.

I long to feel the sun on my shoulders, the breeze from the Caribbean on my flesh. I don’t even remember what my skin looked like when it was healthy and warm, how my feet feel without socks on constantly.

Springtime, Boston is calling!

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

Categories
Colombia

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

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The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

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Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Coastin’ with some bad bitches

The people you meet traveling are half the fun.

I loved having the chance to make lasting friendships with a great group of Australian girls in Colombia.

I was sitting in the courtyard of my Cartagena hostel, el Viajero, sweating through my yoga pants, when the baddest girls I ever met caught my attention. There were five of them holding grocery bags, the thin blonde in front donning some kind of a grim reaper marijuana t-shirt. I remember wondering how these apparent backpackers had the means to be rocking cute outfits and makeup, whereas I only packed comfy staples and some tinted lip balm.

Later that day, I ran into the girls again in the hostel’s subpar kitchen while we made our respective dinners. I admired the way they all chipped in together, comparing their collective process to the countless times I had single-handedly prepared meals for my culinary-challenged friends. They were unexpectedly kind in offering me up their knives to use to cut up my red pepper and onion and were even more surprisingly friendly when I interrupted their meal to ask for a lighter to light the stove. As I handed the lighter back, I looked at the blonde one and said, “I like your shirt. If you’re ever in need, let me know.” I smiled and walked away, happy that I had already found a connect and wasn’t offering up an empty promise, and satisfied that they looked at me with hope rather than disgust.

I didn’t see the girls again until I was heading out to smoke a joint around the corner from the hostel. The tallest one with the most piercing blue eyes, Greer, was walking back to her room where I could hear the other girls howling with laughter. We acknowledged each other, she looking graceful in an Amazonian way in her long skirt that I soon found out were a staple of hers. I showed her the joint and asked if she’d like to come along, to which she happily agreed.

“You wanna invite your bitches?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t be offended that I called them bitches. She didn’t flinch.

“Nah, they’ll just smoke all your stuff,” she replied.

I don’t remember what we talked about while we passed the joint back and forth, but I remember that she was easy to talk to. Long story short, the rest of her crew welcomed me into their group so seamlessly, I wondered how I hadn’t met them before or why I couldn’t find a group of girlfriends this laidback in the states. The last few nights we spent in Cartagena, lounging on chairs in the courtyard and chatting, I was astonished by how sweet and giving these girls were to each other. There was no cattiness, no jealousy. Just a few bad bitches having a good time, and I was honored to be one of them for the time being.

There was Katarina, or Kat, with curly brown hair and a septum piercing. Hanging with her was like being near a reiki masseuse; she somehow could always read and adapt to your energy, and she really took the time to make sure her friends knew they were loved and at peace. Greer, whom I mentioned prior, is nicknamed Groel, which is perfect for her if you’ve ever met her. She’s tall and a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve never seen such a small waist consume so much food and beer. Leah, whom they call Wrecky because she’s always wrecked (not really though), is the blonde with the grim reaper marijuana shirt. She’s thin and beautiful with bright blue eyes and the best Australian accent I’ve ever heard, and she’s always quick to dole out compliments. Julia, or Jules, is sweet, thoughtful and affectionate. She’s the type of person who goes with the flow and seems to never lose her temper, and you know you’re being taken care of when you’re in her company. Elise, or Leisy, is Jules’s sister, a fact what no one had to tell me- I could tell just from noticing their many identical gestures and mannerisms. Leisy’s got a raspy voice and a husky laugh and she is all heart. When I had to leave the girls in paradise to fly back home, Leisy carried my bags to the bus and hugged me about a million times before we finally said goodbye.

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The girls by the pool in Santa Marta- (left to right) Leah, Kat, Elise, Jules, Greer

Since we had all planned to make Santa Marta the next stop after Cartagena, the girls excitedly and genuinely invited me to join them. I was skeptical of the easiness with which they included me at first, but it was all in my head. We ended up at the most beautiful hostel, the Dreamers, in the city that doesn’t offer much but a stopping ground to the rest of the coast, Parque Tayrona, and the Sierra Nevadas.

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In the week I spent basking in their insanely good energy and superb, unparalleled, frat-boy-meets-celebrity style party skills, we sat around in hammocks and were lazy by the pool, drinking mojitos and beers and ordering pasta from the hostel restaurant.

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We trekked to the forest in Minca, a small town nearby, to visit the waterfall at Pozo Azul, and we stayed at the Dreamers in Palomino where the only activity we truly engaged in was trying to stand up in the freakishly strong current of the ocean nearby.

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beach in palomino
beach in palomino

They showed me an awesome time at a nightclub overlooking the bay of Taganga, called el Mirador, and kept me awake yet asleep on my feet, way past my bedtime, at an after party that lasted well past sunrise. I listened intently as they told me about their small town in Australia called Geelong, and watched with amusement a zombie apocalypse tourism campaign done by their crazy mayor whom they all voted for out of humor.

I politely accepted or declined bumps, shared clothes, talked about boys, exchanged travel stories, cooked meals, brainstormed on different uses for vegemite, got drunk, passed cigarettes, had heart to hearts. They even gave me a nickname, Bec, to match all of theirs, which I found very touching.

pasta dinner
pasta dinner…i don’t know that guy who’s photo bombing
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure

I guess this isn’t a post on things to do in Colombia, but this is what I did my last week of my backpacking trip. I found some good girls and rolled with it, because it’s not always about climbing every mountain or visiting every national park or joining every tour. More often than not, traveling is about the people you meet and what they teach you about yourself. These girls taught me that it’s ok to just chill and enjoy the company around you. They showed me that it’s possible to be accepted as family just by being a good person, and they helped me recognize that I have worth and that I am loved.

 

by Rebecca Bellan