A Grand Ending

Days before the year’s close, another dismantling was on display outside our windows. Breathtaking views tugged at unexpecting heart strings, coloring the monumental with shades of nostalgia. The workers, strangers before, now waved back to a captivated boy and the mom with the camera. The fourth wall demolished, lives on display. It felt like the last day of summer, heavy and fleeting at once.

What had begun so concurrently with our own grand-scale reconstruction as to seem a reflection of it had grown apart from us, into familiar permanence. A beacon of industry regarded with nothing but wonder. A weathervane for the astronauts. A colossal plant on the windowsill, turning as if toward and away from the sun. Now, the giant stalk is picked apart, dimensions collapse, a landscape is shocked into change.

The transition is over, the construction has been a success. Soon, orchids will peek out of windows that haven’t yet been fitted with panes. It is, so aptly, a time to celebrate endings, embrace emergence, mourn permanence.

In the year to come, we will remember the crane that seemed close enough to reach out and touch with our hands. We will strive to live well, wave back, bear loss and reclaim the sky.

Photos of the construction site at Warsaw’s Różana taken by the author on the morning of December 28, 2016. Emotions ran high, routines were disruptive: key moments were missed, but the spirit has been captured.

All rights reserved.

Cream of Beet Soup With Rosemary—and the Pots That Inspired It

Cream of beet soup with rosemary and garlic-rosemary croutons in legendary Eva Trio cookware by Danish designer Ole Palsby for Eva Solo. Photo by the author, taken with the Leica X1.

Earthy and woodsy, filling yet vegetal, cream of beet soup with rosemary is both a fresh take on Polish holiday food and warming all-purpose winter fare. Made with water instead of stock, it is easy to prepare and boasts clean flavors that marry well with a garnish of olive-oil croutons seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Other tasty possible toppings include roasted or sautéed potatoes or yams, as well as raw apples or pears, chopped and dressed lightly with cider vinegar or lemon juice and fruity olive oil.

You can download the recipe, but be warned it’s po polsku. If Polish isn’t your thing, here’s a summary: Soften a small onion or a couple of shallots in olive oil, along with the finely minced leaves of one stem of rosemary (about 1 tsp, which is plenty). Add a smashed clove of garlic, making sure nothing is browning. Now add three medium beets and one medium potato, peeled and in chunks, enough water to cover and at least a half-teaspoon of salt. Cook at a steady simmer, until the vegetables yield to a fork. Season the soup with salt, pepper and lemon juice or cider vinegar to taste. When it cools a bit, transfer to a free-standing blender or blend carefully using an immersion blender. Add water by the tablespoon to reach the desired consistency and adjust seasoning as required. When ready to eat, heat only what you need: beets lose their gorgeous color when reheated willy-nilly. Serve with swirls of cream or drizzles of olive oil, making sure to include chunky toppings of croutons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, smoked fish, chopped fruit or crumbled cheese if you’ve opted for a one-course meal.

Jewel-toned cream of beet soup with rosemary boasts clean, earthy and woodsy flavors that marry well with both aromatic croutons and the spicy sweetness of roasted yams. Porcelain plates by Hutschenreuther. Photo by the author, taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

For those here to read about more than the food, I have a bit to explain. For instance, how I fantasized about the iconic cookware line by Ole Palsby, designed in 1979 for Danish housewares company Eva Solo, years before I ever allowed myself the indulgence. And then, once I finally had my chosen selection of pots and ingeniously flat lids, how I immediately proceeded to ruin one of the brand-new snow white soup pots with my metal-tipped immersion blender. As it turned out, the ceramic coating, although excellent in countless ways, doesn’t withstand abuse from metal utensils. After some deliberating, I decided to replace two of the White Line stockpots with sturdy stainless equivalents—which also offer faster responsiveness with an induction cooktop, as well as a rivet-free interior, which I prefer.

I am thrilled with the design and functionality of my pots, saucepans and those ingeniously flat, stackable, game-changing lids (the glass ones are turning out to be my favorite). I am, of course, more cautious than I had planned to be with the saucepan surfaces, but the extra care is well worth the advantages of a blank canvas for the food as it cooks, with true non-stick functionality and outstanding heat transfer. I have a feeling I won’t be able to resist adding to my collection of award-winning Eva Trio cookware.

Captions for a Winter Scene

Photo taken by the author using the Leica X1 just before noon on Friday, December 2, 2016.

1. The crane persists at a snail’s pace and a view transforms in slow motion.

b. Modern-day Bruegel? (One of them, anyway.)

III. A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle waits to happen.

An Advent Adventure

Anker’s Advent calendar for 2016 makes use of the gym ladder that serves as a versatile headboard in his new room. Photo by the author, taken with the Leica X1.

A passionately secular family, we nevertheless partake, in our own way, of the social rituals organizing the Christian year. For us, the Holiday Season has always consisted of a month’s shopping, crafting and baking, with a culmination of heavy expectations, strange Polish foods and an onslaught of presents on Christmas Eve. In 2015, I reached for a new tradition, one adopted from Denmark (my six-year-old son’s other country of origin): a Decemberful of trinkets, lighting up dark winter mornings with a steady uptake of jolly cheer. Oh, sure, kids in Poland get their share of pop-out chocolates, too, but this was a different custom among the Danes I observed: real gifts, deliberate and hand-wrapped and displayed in a way worthy of fervent repinning on Pinterest.

Unbound by the facts, our Advent last year (having no other referent for “Advent” we don’t call ours a calendar) began with day zero on the last day of November and went on to include the 24th, 25th and 26th of December. All season long, it jump-started the days and harnessed that under-the-tree megadose of excitement, delivering it instead at a gentle pace (indeed, there were also fewer presents on Christmas Eve). Most importantly—our new ritual reframed the rites of Christmas itself, transforming many of those feelings I described as heavy into a childlike experience of magic.

And Anker’s experience was magical, too, I could tell.

A Vexing Redux for Magazyn Wino

I’m pleased to report that another piece of my writing has been deemed fit for consumption. Click on the photos for proof, and do read the magazine article if it’s something you might find interesting. As for this post—keep in mind it will be about language and writing. And be warned: most questions ahead don’t get answered.

In the early days of this blog I featured a post about ghee that combined the alimentary with the personal. Years later, tasked with my fourth culinary essay for Poland’s premier wine culture monthly, I decided to revisit the theme, now in a more editorial context, in Polish. I expected the writing to come swiftly and be painless, with many of the sentences or even entire sections a direct or approximate translation of the original. But instead of enjoying a shortcut, I wound up neck-deep in a detour—unable, for reasons unknown, to translate my own phrases, and just as unable to follow even a partial outline of the English text.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a uniquely balanced bilingual, in equal parts wary of translation and insistent on my talent for it. In graduate school I gravitated toward areas of linguistics that best informed this apparent contradiction, discovering in comparative semantics (at all levels of analysis, from discourse to morphology) a treasure map to the ways meaning is separate from language yet dependent on it, and how each is formed in the mind. My curiosity was both intellectual and deeply personal, each discovery bringing me closer not just to my master’s degree, but also to understanding my own life with two languages.

Naturally, casting myself as protagonist in my research was as doomed as it sounds. No amount of insight into the observer’s paradox could make up for my lack of interest in unbiased research, and I wound up straying far from the academic path. Fortunately, my ersatz career has permitted me to keep groping at language on my own terms, and the bilingual experience remains a tool in my work and a daily source of inspiration and pleasure.

Most of the time, I’m charmed—with the way there’s no way to say blue in the Slavic languages (you have to narrow the semantic field to light or dark blue, or use multiple words to transmit the more general meaning), or the ways I stubbornly deploy the historical past perfect (czas zaprzeszły) when speaking Polish, itching to make one grammar clear with regard to a distinction I recognize in another. Sometimes, I’m annoyed, typically with translations that exhibit the wrong trade-offs between literal and contextual aspects of meaning. Here, the title of Lena Andersson’s excellent Wilful Disregard comes to mind: not the English one, which conveys the Swedish original’s exact meaning and, just as importantly, glosses banal desperation in the heroine’s scholarly argot; my criticism is for the Polish Bez Opamiętania (roughly with abandon or without control), a banality devoid of the pretension that so cleverly informs the original. Occasionally, I am also irked by the ways people misuse or misinterpret borrowed teminology (in this era overwhelmingly English in origin), though I try not to stay mad for long: borrowings ultimately do fall far from the tree, which is why there are all those false cognates out there, eliciting glee all around (among linguists, anyway).

Rarely am I stumped. But in writing of ghee for the second time in my mirror language, I found myself no more prepared to tackle the topic—and oddly less equipped to push through the writer’s block. The technical instructions wouldn’t come together, the cultural asides didn’t belong and the personal touches I had previously included seemed out of place in the new piece. Sure, test conditions were poor and observer effect levels high—plus I wasn’t writing for the desk drawer that is my blog but for a fancy glossy with an actual readership; all kinds of things might have made writing different and difficult this time around. It is even possible that I am wrong about last time having been any easier. Nonetheless, my bet is that Polish is an order of magnitude trickier when it comes to technical instructions, less suited to resolving thematic interruptions, less acommodating of cheeky personalia and confusingly different from English with regard to argument structure and maybe even the very purpose of transmitting information.

It is beyond the scope of my inquiry today just how English and Polish differ in general or specifically on the last juicy point. I am pretty sure though that comparing the original Clarified with Kwadratura Masła (butter squared) should yield some clues. If your interest is in ghee alone—click according to the language you feel more at ease reading. But if your appetite for the linguistic rivals your love of butter, go ahead and compare—and let me know if you catch anything I might have missed because I’m way too involved.

Subject: Not sending that e-mail

This is an open letter, pointedly not posted to anyone’s mailbox, written in celebration of minimizing the amount of e-mail occupying inboxes, to-do-lists and minds. (It is, some may note, not the first time I’ve written on this subject.) 

This post is also a letter of apology to all those who have ever received a message from me they could have done without—especially, in those pre-Facebook days, one distributed to dozens and containing pretentious drivel (“dispatch” I would have called it) or an opinion or link I failed not to share.

It is also a plea that we all take our chatting, inviting, RSVP-ing and notificating and park it along with the rest of its ilk on Facebook, where at least it consumes time we’re voluntarily committing to waste (and where messages are stored not as e-mails but in a chat-style matrix that is basically already an archive).

I am, of course, speaking for that fringe set of e-mailers whose appreciation of a sorted inbox rivals our love of an icon-free desktop background, but know that we are a righteous pack, and we work hard to prove why things should be done our way. Also—whether you are one of us or you aren’t—please reflect upon the way every incoming message really does come at a tiny cost to your capital of time, and at a less tiny cost to your net capacity for concentration. After all, one has to assess an e-mail’s potential for being important, and then one may also need to decide whether a reply is warranted, and, if so, whether it is one to write instantly or to revisit later, and whom, if anyone, to include as CC and BCC recipients of that message. Finally, the decision whether to delete or leave or archive a message is yet another claim on one’s time.

Thus, I enclose a yelp of fury for each message that passes my inbox without containing (administrative or personal) information or confirmation that is actually necessary for me to see. That’s right, mailing list administrators who added my e-mail without my explicit consent, and senders of invitations to art shows on other continents, and confirmers of the “yes, I’ll be there” variety whenever you’re not actually replying to me. How I wish you had left me off the recipient list altogether!

I realize I’m suggesting the impossible, so let me suggest instead a reduction of the intolerable. Let’s just now and then try leaving a byte unsent.

To add value to plea and apology, here’s a handy apropos formulation for tacking on to official messages, below the signature, provided of course one is into this sort of base-covering pedantry:

Thank you for respecting the privacy of sender’s e-mail address.
Use for topic-related reply only. Do not add to database or mailing list.

It took me hours to perfect the wording, but in a few decades I think it might wind up saving me even more hours in wasted time! (It is also proof of one’s lack of consent to any ensuing spam, which may one day win someone millions in a lawsuit, though possibly a feat like that would first cost millions in time.)


Photo taken by the author at sunset in Warsaw, Poland, on the fifteenth anniversary of the unthinkably tragic attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Note: the birds (and their apparent flight paths) were an unintended, serendipitous subject.

Mushrooming: Level One

 Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Mushroom hunting is not a fringe discipline in Poland. It is a main event, one I never expected to join in on, at least not with any rate of success. Attempts at finding a mushroom “on purpose” always led to nowhere, and my limited mycological knowledge was pretty much useless, even when a mushroom found me. Because so what if it looks like a king bolete if I don’t know with certainty what other species resemble a king bolete, or which of those might be poisonous?

Years into taming the woods at my summer cabin, I am gaining a sense for what’s worth gathering. More importantly, I’m beginning to spot my prey. Indeed, foraging for mushrooms can be said to resemble the carnivorous chase more than the fruit picking session, with specimens sprouting up in a matter of minutes, it would seem, in unpredictable, mostly well-camouflaged places. It’s mushroom hunting, remember? And mushrooms are not plants at all, but rather chitin-rich separatists occupying the fungi kingdom.

It has been suggested (by the likes of Michael Pollan, to recent acclaim) that real, unwavering knowledge of a species resides not in the intellect but in the gut, and it derives not from books but from entrenched experience. Holistic, non-analytical and empirical, it follows the logic of impervious certainty: you know you can pick that chanterelle because it is a chanterelle, and only then is it also funnel-shaped and deep orange-y yellow, with a scent both woody and reminiscent of apricots, and with gill-like ridges running almost all the way down its sturdy, steadily tapering stipe.

The various types of boletes I dehydrate with Poland’s winter specialties in mind, though I might turn a half-dozen of them (or a few tasty parasol mushrooms) into an artery-jamming foil for a batch of biscuits. But the chanterelles, invariably, wind up as the star in what Mark Bittman teaches are the ultimate scrambled eggs: an unctuous custard, smooth and rich, stirred over low heat for ages and now stained a light tan from the sautéed kurki. (It’s worth noting that the Polish term happens to be a homonym for little chickens and evokes plainer, friendlier fare than its frou-frou English equivalent.)

Neither tedious nor boring, mushroom hunting is trance-inducing and highly gratifying. The promise of food at the end of the hunt imbues it with titillating purpose, but even better is the way each find is like an addictive video game’s sparkly chime, only real.

A Big Kid Now

—That looks great, Anker! I’d like one cone with all the flavors please.
—This isn’t ice cream, mom. It’s explosives for the mining industry.

 Photo taken by the author in Torup, Nordsjælland, on July 12, 2016.

Photo taken by the author in Torup, Nordsjælland, on July 12, 2016.

Crows on a Crane

Though we moved into our gut-renovated home in mid-May, we are still a long way from being completely moved in. The pace has unraveled and the loose ends are the ones hardest to tie up and tuck away. (Lamps to hang, switches to rewire, walls to repaint, a swatch of oiled floor in need of a redo, a drain cover to replace, a doorknob to mount, curtains to hem—the fabric for which has not even been selected.)

Outside our windows, a construction site roars from 7am every day. The noise and dust are tedious and unbearable in turns. But the screams of heavy machinery and the crane’s in-your-face arc are a fitting witness to our own unfinished, unsettled construction.

But then evening comes, quiet settles in, birds take charge, Anker falls asleep. And home feels like home again (or, maybe, for the first time ever).

 Photo taken by the author on June 25, 2016, at 20:47 in the evening in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens.

Photo taken by the author on June 25, 2016, at 20:47 in the evening in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens.

Halfway to Twelve

 Photo taken by the author on June 12, 2016, at 20:29 in the evening in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens. Underexposed to show moon surface detail.

Photo taken by the author on June 12, 2016, at 20:29 in the evening in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens. Underexposed to show moon surface detail.

My son turned six today and the moon was a half-lit wonder, spelling out six in the language of that clock-faced master of time.

Six, in this case, is everything that came before a summer’s countdown to the first day of first grade. Six, for us, is most of the tears he’ll cry in my arms and most of the nights he has wound up in my bed. It is learning to sit, eat, walk, ride a bike, ski, read, brush teeth and fend for himself while I have a lie-in on a Saturday. For me, in turn, six is what followed the long stretch of youth that preceded my life as I know it. 

But six is just half of twelve, says the moon, as if to remind me that nothing wonderful is over.

Article Two in Magazyn Wino

This time, it’s all about jam making—and it’s as much about why we make jam as it is about technique. Editor in Chief Tomek Prange-Barczyński has added a section on pairing fruit conserves with wine and cheese and I’ve included recipes for three of my favorite kinds of preserves (strawberry with a smidge of rhubarb, blackcurrant, sour cherry).

Long-time readers (including and possibly not limited to my mother) will note this is a topic I’ve explored in the past.

I wish I had it in me to say more, but I’m overwhelmed with the big move. Yes, the apartment is nearly done. Yes, it all cost twice as much as I expected and took twice as long to complete. Anker and I have physically moved in, but we are still a long way from being done moving in. I am consumed with order-lust and a perfectionist’s anxious arrival in the reality of something long-coming. All I can do to keep my blog on a lifeline is plop in the pic I finally snapped today and back-date this beast so it looks like I posted something in May.

Now... back to arranging books by both topic and format under the cover of night.

Brand Names and Capitalization Quandaries

In a simpler world, logos were straightforward and referencing names in text was a piece of cake: “regular” names followed title case and acronyms expressed their concise selves in all caps.

Now, alas, usage of case in branded material (including all-caps, start case, title case, sentence case and lowercase) is dictated not exclusively by rules of grammar but also by medium-specific typographic conventions and by grammar-averse aesthetic principles. In fact, letter case format in brand names today is mostly a product of the designer’s preference for font-specific letterforms coupled with client perceptions of a wordmark’s “attitude.” Thus, lowercase logos tend to come off as relatively more modern, unpretentious, discreet and informal than uppercase ones, which are better for communicating that a brand is loud, decisive or powerful. And logotypes rendered in traditional title case can help a logo come across as classic, timeless and elegant.

That is all as it should be. A logo, after all, whether it’s a badge on a box or a stamp on a page, is a context unto itself: here I am, it seems to proclaim—and the words I bear are my name.

Problems arise, however, whenever a non-standard letter case variant is lifted from the logo and applied to the brand name when it occurs in regular text. Use all-caps and the name looks too much like an acronym (especially if it is a neologism) or like something you’re yelling (especially if it’s a familiar word or phrase). Use no caps and the name disappears—or infuriates, as it well may if your caps-free name ends up starting a paragraph or sentence. Some opt for marking their unconventionally case-styled name using color, italics or bold, but since these are typically used for emphasis and not demarcation of lexical class, they call undue attention to the altered text without solving other problems (like that pesky sentence-initial non-capital).

When a brand name appears on its own, without contextual support from the logo, it benefits from following the general rules of capitalization that apply to the text as a whole. Like the CEO’s name (scrawled in self-effacing lowercase, perhaps, when it is her signature on company paper...), the brand name, too, deserves grammar-grade title case treatment.

Clients are resistant. But it looks wrong, they say. We created a whole brand around avoiding that capital. Won’t it be confusing? Not as confusing as the alternatives, actually. Keep in mind that we’re all used to caps morphing to lowercase in URLs and e-mail addresses, anyway. Having a logo that puts a fresh spin on the letter case of your grammar-respecting name is preferable to maintaining that your avant-garde name warrants special case treatment in every context.

My name, top left, is one relevant example. Indeed, it’s styled as lowercase—but make no mistake: the name is Osiatynska.

A Jubilant Début in Magazyn Wino

After a lifetime’s fascination with food (or, one can hope, half a lifetime’s...) and apparently enough food-writing practice on my own blog, I’m delighted to report on my new partnership with Poland’s premier wine culture bimonthly, Magazyn Wino. Working closely with the editors of this eminent publication, I will be creating texts and images celebrating the lesser-known side of simple ingredients and fundamental techniques.

The first story, pictured, delves deep into what most people probably don’t know about potatoes. The next one will take on a full season’s worth of jam making basics (and the ones to follow are still in development).

It’s a big honor and a tremendous learning opportunity—and one hell of a reason for me to raise a glass.

Madness, Indeed

Going through my possessions in an effort to further streamline the functional and aesthetic scope of my small family’s belongings, I happened upon what I deem the most random collection of things I could possibly find. I am astonished as to how I might have thought that a complete set of McFarlane’s “Six Faces of Madness” collectible figures would ever be something I actually wanted. Alas, I am the puzzled owner of a mint-condition series of eight-inch-tall toy monsters inspired by classic literature, all in their original, never-opened packaging. If I remember correctly, I got the whole set for twenty bucks each, so for $120, at a store just off Union Square. It was my life’s ultimate impulse buy, and it took place on the eve of the day I left the U.S. for good, which means I bought these things on July 2, 2004. I recall the figures just barely fitting into my luggage (two giant DDB-branded portfolio carriers I lifted from my corporate alma mater).

So now I have this interesting problem, which is how to unload this odd collection and at least get my money back—or ourtight make a profit, given how this kind of limited-edition drivel sometimes appreciates. The challenges: I’m not on eBay, I’m not interested in getting on eBay, ditto for the Polish counterpart Allegro, I don’t know the gaming scene, and I’m in no position to make a quick deal with some reseller of memorabilia at a shop near Union Square.

Any takers out there? Best offer wins.

Product photography by the author, accomplished in daylight with the infallible Leica X1 in mid-February 2016.

Scenes From a Renovation

With the first Warsaw snow came the first signs of quiet order at the construction site that is a family’s metamorphic home. Now the turnpikes of electric wire are forgotten under walls that are smooth and white. Now six different versions of grey glass mosaic tiles are no longer lost in transit on their way from Spain but painstakingly affixed to a dozen and a half planes of shower and bathroom surface. Now the men are familiar and trusted as they come and go to replace the windows and wheel in the supplies and do plastering and lay six kinds of tiny grey tiles.

All photos by Natalia Osiatynska, taken in daylight with the Leica X1 on the 17th, 12th or 10th of January, 2016.

Project of the Year

Twenty-fifteen had its share of memorable news and milestone moments: a boy’s first loose tooth, a mom’s parasurgical corneal procedure, a family’s collective despair following two separate major elections. But strangest of all, and most exhilarating (and most fear-inducing, at times) was the mayhem that unfolded when we vacated our apartment in early November and its gut renovation process began. Wilder still than the noise and expense is of course the way these remarkable circumstances have come to be the new normal.

Anker and I are thrilled and baffled to welcome the new year from our temporary quarters just two floors down from the construction site that is set to re-emerge as our much-improved home in just a couple more months (which will either manifest as many long weeks or a downright blur of constant decision-making intensity). It’s fair to say we’re about halfway home—and we look forward to loads of well-deserved nesting in 2016.

Happy new year, everyone. And we hope you enjoy this year’s... deconstructivist family album.

The Holidays Harnessed

A first stab at a new tradition adorns the bare walls of our temporary rental apartment. Photo taken by the author on November 30, 2015, using the wonderful Leica X1.

Moonlit Morning

 The sky was slate blue—but showing moon surface detail requires considerable underexposure. Photo taken on November 27, 2015, at 7:08 in the morning in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens. Copyright ©2015 Natalia Osiatynska.

The sky was slate blue—but showing moon surface detail requires considerable underexposure. Photo taken on November 27, 2015, at 7:08 in the morning in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens. Copyright ©2015 Natalia Osiatynska.


Come quick, mom! There’s a bird and you can see it in the puddle and we have to take a picture! Hurry!

Photo taken on October 16, 2015, at 9:38 in the morning in Warsaw’s Mokotów with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the 200mm/f2.8 L-series lens. Copyright ©2015 Anker Osiatynski and Natalia Osiatynska.

I think this qualifies as a first professional collaboration between mother and son.