The TravelJen Blog

Jen Pinkowski

Jennifer Pinkowski wrote and photographed for various publications as she traveled through China, Southeast Asia, India, UAE, Turkey, and Europe in 2007.

Nuns on Bikes and Problem Geometries—

Thursday, May 22, 2008

—among other things, have kept me occupied these long months working on a book proposal for a travel memoir about the around-the-world trip the TravelJen blog documented. Hopefully you’ll have a book in your hand someday—that is, my book, not just any old book. (I know you already have other books, being the literate sorts that you are.) It includes a chapter called “Nuns on Bikes and Other Revelations” that picks up where the blog left off—in Poland. Later chapters cover a return trip to Warsaw on assignment, some surprisingly revelatory gambling in Atlantic City (who knew that was possible?), and happy happy Spring days in Istanbul with Steve, my indomitable HusbandMan.

What the final chapter is, I don’t know yet. The thing is, I’m still living the book. Life isn’t providing me any easy-to-tie-up narratives these days. But then again, when has it? The ends we draw on our stories are arbitrary, because the world goes on without them. It ignores our limits and our lines in the sand.

Henry James wrote: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere…the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing: drawing circles.

Until my as-yet-imaginary book is in your hand, you can read about some of my adventures by clicking on the months at right or searching in the little window below them for any of the countries I visited—China, Vietnam, Thailand, India, UAE, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, the UK, or Iceland. You can also try terms like “elephants,” “politics,” and “bondage.” The results will be both more and less exciting than you would think.

Also take a look at the photo galleries. I’m working on getting together a photography show, with actual, touchable (well, don’t touch em!), corporeal photographs hanging in frames on real, honest-to-god walls.

Thanks for reading. It’s been lovely.

Proud to Be Polish

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

For those of you still reading the TravelJen Blog (anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), my apologies for the long delay since the last posting. I’ve now been back in NYC as long as I was overseas and have been stressfully busy as all hell. While the trip abroad seemed to last much longer than four months—more lifetime-y than one-third of a year-y—the past four months back home have passed in a dismayingly fast, and largely unsatisfying, fashion. Blame it on the wanderlust that still puts ants in my pants. But I’m determined to end the TravelJen Blog, and not just let it peter out. It can’t go on longer than a few more weeks. I mean, this is getting ridiculous. Meanwhile, last week I took a non-fiction book proposal seminar at my graduate school alma mater. Hopefully this blog will have formed the skeleton of a larger project that will, inshallah, result in something you can hold in your hand.

And then, double inshallah and technology willing, I’ll start a new blog that will actually capitalize on the real-time aspect of the Interwebs—you know, daily updates and the like. Think travel, science, culture, books—and the future. (Cue Evil Mastermind Cackle.)


When I was a kid, my father had a T-shirt that said I’m Proud to be Polish! But this was not your standard off-the-rack nativism (which in America, of course, is often immigrant flavored). For one thing, there was the color: a safety-cone orange, a Tang-toned blaze that was both Saturday-morning cartoon and Better Living Through Chemistry. And then there was the quintessentially 1970s fabric appliqué the words had been adhered to the T-shirt with—a slick and rubbery patch that always tweaked the latent teething toddler in me. (Well, at least with my own T-shirts. I left my dad’s alone.) Finally, there was the actual phrase. The word “Polish” was misspelled five times, each iteration skewed at a “wacky” angle and then crossed out. The correct spelling ended the list. It had a gleefully triumphant exclamation point: Polish!

The fact is, most of the Polish jokes I heard when I was a kid I heard from my father and other second-generation Poles, as well as from Italians and the Irish, whose blood I can also claim a touch of. (See: Mom, freckles.) Like every other word “taken back”—think nigger, fag, or bitch—the derisive terms for these later European immigrants were eventually used by them. In northern New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s, Polacks, Wops, and Micks routinely smacktalked each other along a clearly satisfying continuum of white ethnic slurs. The Brzezowskis and the D’angelos and Fitzgeralds called each other stupid (Poles), lazy (Italians), and drunk (Irish), and then made babies together. That’s how you wind up with someone like me, who according to these tropes is genetically drunk and stupid. Forget being proud to be Polish. I’m proud I can find my own face.

But if I thought growing up with constant reminders of my Polish background might make me feel some sort of intrinsic connection to the Home Country, I was wrong. In fact, my experience turns out to be the opposite. Many of the things I encounter seem so intrinsically Polish, and so completely unrelated to anything in my family history, that I end up feeling more wholly American than ever.

It all comes down to the nuns on bikes.

So a Solidarity Icon and a Former Leader of the Free World Walk Into This Bar…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monika‘s mom is trying to tell a joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton. It’s not going well, because she can’t stop laughing. To contain the giggles, she tries ducking her chin towards her beer, which she has clutched to her sternum. To her left is her sister, whose house in Augustow Monika, her mom, and I are guests in on Mother’s Day in Poland. This sister looks more like a twin than a sibling and probably is genetically compelled to laugh along. To her right is Sabine, this sister’s neighbor, who has the second most contagious laugh I have ever heard. (The first was a lover from college. Alas, the memory of his titter lasted far longer than the fling.) I am next to Sabine and helpless not to laugh when Sabine does. It’s like being tickled. Monika, her cousin, and her cousin’s friend fill out the rest of the table. There is a dampness to us, and a bit of happy hysteria that is half female and half beer.

We women retreated inside a half hour ago when an early summer thunderstorm rolled in purple-green waves above the fields between us and the road to Lithuania. Our backyard barbeque has been officially rained out. Monika’s uncle and Sabine’s husband, by virtue of being grillmaster and male friend, respectively, nevertheless remain outside, the backs of their plastic chairs pressed against the house, periodically squinting up in disappointment at the dripping eaves. They drink Foster-sized cans of Polish beer and poke the grilling meat. Poland is the first predominantly Christian country I’ve visited in nearly four months, and nothing establishes this fact better than the grill. An inventive array of a half-dozen types of pork singe to tasty on the flames. I choose kielbasa and something vaguely baby-hamster shaped. Both are delicious.

Our women’s table is a bit punchy. It could be the beer, thought we haven’t had much to drink. It could be the humidity, but the beer is keeping us cool. Or maybe it’s the joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton, though we haven’t heard much of it yet. Monika’s mom is still snorting and gasping her way through it. Brushing tears from the corners of her eyes, Monika translates the joke so far. It has something to do with Lech Walesa giving a bison to Bill Clinton. Surely, Poles love their meat.

I have understood this much when we are interrupted by Monika’s uncle, who stands damp and sheepish in the doorway to the patio with a look that says he’s rather be inside with the women but can’t for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that we’re a group of women—an impenetrable coven. He holds a tray of getting-soggy pork. The storm has doused the grill flames.

“What should I do with this meat?” he asks his wife. Hearing this, Monika’s mom takes one look at the tray and loses herself in merry shrieks. I guess I can assume the bison in the joke was in cutlet form.

“Maybe he should give the meat to Bill Clinton,” I say. Monika says “HA!” and translates. Her poor mother is nearly apoplectic. Sabine slaps the table and then my shoulder. “You know, I live in New York,” I continue, and Monika passes it on in Polish. “I could give the meat to Bill Clinton.” I rap my knuckles on the table and mime extending a tray to Billary’s front door with an eager flight-attendant smile. Now everyone is half crying and half laughing and clenching their stomachs.

Trying to catch her breath, Monika turns to me and says, “You are doing very well.”

We never do get to the punchline.

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