With God on our side

Elzbieta in Krakow

Elzbieta in Krakow, fall 2010

Every now and then I hear a song that feels like three glasses of wine and looks like nostalgia:

The country I come from is called the Midwest. . . 

me in a Prague hostel, 2010

me in a Prague hostel, 2010

Every day is like new and I’m very present because the stakes are high.  I try to see the forest among the essays about inner-city Chicago and graphics of affordable housing stats for the Governor.

There are so many characters these days.  New friends, old friends, coffee dates, drinks after class, drinks before class, weekend tea and feelings parties.  North side–I stay on the north side on the weekend.  Don’t plan to see me unless you’re between Wilson and Devon.

But I miss this:

Erik sleeping on the train to Warsaw

Erik sleeping on the train to Warsaw

There have been many fine moments this fall, and now that I’m in my reflection phase of the season my focus has moved back toward my international sensibilities.  The thought of moving back, of working toward a job, of living abroad (in Poland) again.

The question always arises. . . why do I want to go again?  Why do I think of leaving while I love establishing myself in Chicago, a place near my family, that has plenty of Polish people anyway?

US has folk music, but Poland has the gypsy.

Traveling lady stay awhile

Me and CA on Montrose Pier

My E. Euro travel buddy CA and I on Montrose Pier.  

It’s fall, so I can listen to Leonard Cohen again.

I love fall.  The air is so fresh and my favorite music only really fits in this setting.  Laura Marling, Neko Case, all-things-gypsy. I missed fall last year being in Cochabamba, so this year I’m really soaking in the season.

The light is getting minimal for my lake-bicycling, so I am putting it on a stand in my apartment and decorating it with purple Christmas lights today.  I’m hunkering down for the winter with new boots and a lot of home-made soup.  And I’m trying to get through each new week of school (which is awesome, and would be pretty flawless without god-help-me endless group-projects), work which has morphed into new levels of professionalism/the pretty awful reality of the cubicle-job, and my free time has been turned into reading academia on the train and Wednesday night gypsy jazz.

I’m not sure if I know yet how to not do homework all the time, or stop thinking about it, at least.  It’s good stuff we’re studying.  Basically, all the issues I already read about as far as current events/social commentary go.  But it’s heavy.  It’s the social injustices of the world.  I cry all the time still, but it’s fine, it’s healthy.

Sometimes it seems strange that I am so overwhelmed still by watching videos about Haiti or people getting shot on the South Side.  .  . it still feels like it did back in Nairobi, like an overwhelmingly painful reality of injustice and pain.  By the way, Nairobi: Gunmen kill dozens in terror attack at Kenyan mall

I don’t really know what to say about this other than I spent my last morning in Nairobi at ArtCaffe, the Israeli café in the mall that became a war zone thanks to Al-Shabab.

In other international news I care about a lot, it is surreal the things Pope Francis says.  Every time I hear an interview with him I feel like I’m sitting across from my favorite Jesuit having a drink.  He says: America Magazine Pope Interview

So, while I stay in touch with the world, I’m also learning more about my ‘hood thanks to a project for one of my classes.  I have discovered the Vietnamese bakeries sell both delicious “moon cakes” and for the more unique palate, “pork cookies” (yes.)

I got to play tour guide again, as last week, my dear friend Christi Anne came to visit on her way back from a summer in Russia.  We hadn’t seen each other since my last trip to Ukraine—a last-minute midnight border-run, as I documented in “Impulsive Adventure: Chicago/Lviv”. Oh we had a GOOD time together.  It was fantastic being with someone again who fit in with my other random lives I’ve had abroad, alone.  So many summer camps and night buses and crazy reunions.  We’re making plans for Eastern Europe.  We will both be back soon, no doubt.

Now, time to study again.

Long hair: $25

I feel like this photo needs a cup of coffee in it.

I should have posed with a coffee mug. 

I got my hair cut today.  Jack, my new neighborhood barber, owner of Klassy Cut, gave me a super fun new do, and I thought it warranted a blog.  That, and to document that there is a place to get your hair cut in Andersonville that has a sign up reading:

Men: $15
Women: $18
Long Hair: $25

Doesn’t quite follow my professor’s comment last week when describing how bougie and hip Andersonville is: “Calling Andersonville gay is an understatement.  Culture follows the gays.”

It cracked me up.  Reminded me of when I had my hair cut in La Paz, in Krakow, and by my roommate in Prague.  Jack definitely had an accent too, but didn’t say his ethnicity, and I didn’t ask.  All I know is I can walk-in, just around the corner, and get a good haircut on the cheap.

And next time it will only be $18!

Weeknight fire-escape


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I’ve started and stopped several blogs recently.  Alas, I had to fully commit to my first summer intensive grad-class while hanging on by my fingernails at work, and hosting 4 lovely people since last writing. Now class is over, my grade is in, and I can breathe again.

It’s a beautiful night when all I have to do is sit on my fire escape and sip Gato Negro and think about the summer.

This is mostly what I’ve been up to:

Murphy girls 2.0

Beach babes from Nebraska

Spending every free moment at the beach with visitors: Caroline and Mom, Emily, and Erik.

“Girl from the North Country” (This week’s theme song)

Exploring Uptown. Got to experience gypsy jazz at the Green Mill the Wednesday before the 4th of July.  It was magical, though there wasn’t enough room to dance like Kazimierz.

Old Capone joint

Old Capone joint

Writing excessive marathon-letters to girlfriends from college on the train.  Chicago is full of raw impressions.

My train stop in Little Vietnam

My train stop in Little Vietnam

Continuing to obliterate sad thoughts with Eastern European art, including my favorite Czech short story: The Sweet Weekend

And my favorite new band: If you need violin and accordion in your life

Speaking of the old country. . .

I found the most amazing Polish bar on West Belmont:

Bim Bom Lounge

Bim Bom Lounge. . . Na Zdrowie!

Emily and I had to beat off the Polish men with a stick.  I was being called Zosia again and bought Lechs, Zywiec’s, Becherovka’s and a whole lot of other hangover-inducing drinks.

Molly sent me a package via Vatican post. God bless the Italians.

Additionally, I read at least an article per day about Pope Francis, and am ever-so-excited about his impact on the Church.  He is a joy to read about.  Finally someone confident enough to address the world.  And he hangs with Adolfo. . . or “Nico” as Molly said the Australian Jesuits call him.  It’s like my best friend just became Pope.

Finally, soon, now. . . I’ll be updating.  Summer is bright.

I have become a lake-dweller

Yesterday I woke at dawn, feeling the bottle of wine I’d stopped drinking only 4 or 5 hours before.  I couldn’t stand lying in bed so I went to Michigan Lake, with no plan but to see the water.

At the early hour many people still flanked the beaches where the low sun glittered on the water.  I went out to the pier north of Foster Beach and sat and looked at the rocks and the gulls and thought about the pier that I was on the day before up in Rogers Park.

It was painting day at Pratt Street Beach.  That’s the day when everyone in the neighborhood comes out to paint a long bench along the beach.  There was band playing on the grass near the water and  kids played together in the sand and fished off the pier.  It was a blissful afternoon, a rare moment in time — fleeting in its magnificence — like days I spent abroad, when I knew the time and the person and the place would only last until the clock ran out, until the bus left.

I used to compare these broken-heart feelings to the loneliness that comes when traveling abroad alone.  This morning I woke up thinking I was back underneath a mosquito net, far away and alone.  In the tight grasp of imminent, irreversible change.

I was asked this morning in the bathroom if it was my allergies again.  I said it was.  It’s lucky I don’t have too much work today.  It might be irresponsible to even be here, since I can barely speak.

It is for the best.  It is sensible.  If it didn’t happen it would have ended with frustration, bitterness.  Rather, it ended with a beautiful day at the lake and a *maybe in the future.

It is tragic though.

It was better when it was just the mosquito net.


My apartment.  I love it.

My apartment. I love it.

The bedroom windows of my apartment face my courtyard.  The trees have begun to bloom, wafting in the perfume of Spring in Chicago.

Spring in Chicago is so far not so warm or sunny, but I have hope.  I live 15-20 minutes from Michigan Lake and Foster Beach.  I live inbetween Uptown and Andersonville, and am surrounded by Vietnamese restaurants on one side, and trendy boutiques, cafes and bars on the other.

Sand dunes and Michigan Lake

Sand dunes and Lake Michigan

I love my apartment.  It’s filled with old furniture from my late Grandma Wilma, and other generations of her family.  I have it decorated with old posters from Europe, and I finally have a place for my Ukranian sugar bowl and my giraffe bottle opener from the Massai Market in Nairobi, and my Polish French-press.  My foreign belongings finally have a place.

Today is the first day I’ve really been able to relax since coming to Chicago, with the craziness of moving in and starting a pretty intense job.  I have tried to take things slowly here, gradually get my life set up. And so far, so good.  Mostly, I am just happy I survived this week, with the last-minute trip to Nebraska for Grandma Wilma’s funeral, writing and delivering her euology, and then after flying back Wednesday night, going to Rockford, IL, Thursday with the executive director of my organization for a grand opening ceremony, where I “worked the press” for the first time.

Michigan Ave. in front of my office building.

Michigan Ave. in front of my office building.

It’s been a good whirlwind.  It feels so amazing to be working in communications again.  I’ll still be starting grad school, but for the moment I’m enjoying learning the ins and outs of corporate communications.  There are a lot of ins and outs.  But I’ve published a few press releases and written talking points for the top woman, so things are definitely happening.  Next week I’m planning to join the company softball team.  They play once a week in Grant Park against other companies in Chicago.  Though everything I’ve been doing feels terribly trendy after living in Nebraska and Bolivia for the last year and a half, for some reason the softball thing really takes the cake for me.  Oh, that and that the corporate Disney office is secretly somewhere in my office building.  (Ahhhh I can’t take it—I’m in the world again!!!)

It all feels very natural though, and very good.  I think little by little I’ll figure out a routine, so that my evenings can be filled more with bike rides and less with laying in my bed immediately in exhaustion.  Chicago is going to be beautiful this summer.  The trees are already blooming, and I saw the beginning of flowers at the botanic gardens two weeks ago when John and Sophie took me.  As I type this the wind is blowing and I am getting flower petals from the tree in the courtyard into my window on my bed.

At the Chicago botanic gardens

At the Chicago botanic gardens

I have been enjoying the similarities of living in this apartment to living abroad.  Only half of my windows have screens, I don’t have a microwave or dishwasher, and my heater is a hilarious old steam heat thing, that makes horrendous noises whenever it comes on.  It actually woke me up this morning, clanking around.  I can’t actually control the amount of heat I get or when it turns on and off, other than just entirely turning it off or on, but it is easy enough to control the heat with keeping windows open.  It does crack me up though, because even when I lived in Poland I had more control over the heat.  Although, in Nairobi and South America there was no heat to be had inside anyway.  (I’m thinking about Puno and the two epic nights I spent freezing my ass off on Lake Titicaca with six alpaca blankets piled on top of me.  This was during the no-showering-for-4-days stretch of “backpacking in Peru and spending as little money as possible.”)

I LOVE how it feels to live here.  My apartment is so aesthetically pleasing. I love my big windows and my little kitchen with Grandma’s old drop-leaf table and my basil plant in the window.  I spend a lot of time in there, cooking vegetables and a few weeks ago, a huge dinner of pierogis and chocolate chip cookies.

My kitchen. (I almost typed "Polish kitchen.")  It basically is, in my favorite ways.

My kitchen. (I almost typed “Polish kitchen.”) It basically is, in my favorite ways.

I do feel like I spend a lot of time alone, and sometimes when I come home from work I don’t know what to do for the first 10 minutes or so.  The best part about coming home from work or school or whatever is always talking to people that you love and relaxing.  I utilize my phone a lot.  But, it’s great to be able to do what I want when I want, it’s so wonderful to have freedom.  I will eventually get more used to the alone time, because when I am used to it I do love it.  It’s just all part of the process of moving and changing and growing, to know what to do with those first 10 minutes.

This weekend my friend Steve who I met in Bolivia is in town visiting.  I have a little bit of Singani left that I brought from Bolivia and I think we’ll be toasting the reunion with a few Chuflies.  It will be nice to see an old friend and talk about Cochabamba and Evo.

I also can’t say enough how wonderful it was this week, despite the circumstances of Grandma’s funeral, to see the family.  Peter gets cuter every day (see video of him going bananas when I walked in the house Monday night) and Neve and the Murphy kids are always a blast.  It was seeing the Murphy girls though—the girl cousins and aunts who mean so much to me, that really made the world feel right.  I first came to Chicago with them, more than ten years ago.  I still have the old black and white photo of Mary and I on the El from our first visit on my wall.  I always knew it would be a good idea to move here, into this bustling, worldly, happening Midwestern city.

Everyone must visit!

That means you too sweet cheeks! (have you EVER seen a cuter baby? Not possible.  It's not possible.)

That means you too sweet cheeks! (have you EVER seen a cuter baby? Not possible. It’s not possible.)

Wilhelmina Rose Votipka Murphy 1916-2013


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Grandma Wilma looking beautiful in California.

In California

On May 7, 2013 I flew from Chicago to Nebraska to give this eulogy for my dear old Grandma Wilma.  It was one of, if not the most important things I’ve been able to do in my life.  She was without exaggeration the most loving, classy, beautiful and warm person I have ever known. I’m thrilled to have been able to help memorialize her life.

Good Morning.  I’m Sophie Vodvarka, the youngest of Wilma’s 17 grandchildren.  My mother Rose was Wilma’s youngest of six children.  It’s hard to believe we are here celebrating the life of this wonderful, loving, inspirational woman.  Because as one of my friends recently pointed out, “Czech women never die!”

We all have our own memories as her children, spouses of her children, her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and her friends and neighbors.  However we knew her, Wilma’s kindness and strength shone always.  Wilma was a caretaker, a motherly figure to us all.

Wilma lived on the farm she and Swede build when they first married.  She gave birth to her first child, Kathleen, in the farmhouse and she lived there until she was almost 90 years old.  She also mowed the lawn herself until she was about 85.

A central memory to my grandmother’s life was how cool her old farmhouse was.  When we grandkids weren’t building forts in the ditches we always took great pleasure in playing with the central vacuum system which she would use to suck up all the flies upstairs, and the laundry chute where any number of toys and household items were sent sliding down into the basement.

There were plenty of fables of the farmhouse that were before my time, like Bill’s alligator that lived in the basement bathtub and the time some of the grandkids and Wilma sewed Swede to the couch while he was sleeping.  I think we all must have memories of her in the kitchen though, filling the house with wonderful healthy meals followed by extremely rich desserts.  As Matt Harre mentioned, “She was always making a lot of noise in the kitchen!”

Wilma’s Czech heritage showed in her kolaches, which were a staple in the kitchen.  She spoke Czech when she was growing up, learning English in school.  I asked her a few years ago before going to study abroad in the Czech Republic if she remembered any words.  She told me that she remembered “pivo” which means beer, and *“Hesky holka dej mi ho bitchka” which means “hey pretty girl come give me a kiss.”

Wilma's beautiful high school graduation photo.

Wilma’s beautiful high school graduation photo.

In her later life Wilma began to travel with Swede and her siblings Vivian and Bill.  They took trips to Spain, Morocco, **China, Hawaii, Scandanavia, Nova Scotia and other parts of the US.  She kept a sand collection from all of the beaches she went to around the world.  The family has continued to contribute sand along from their travels.

Wilma was healthy in mind, body and spirit.  She kept a daily journal and attended exercise classes until late in life.  She was a devout Catholic and taught her family the kind values of the Church.  Wilma was also an excellent multi-tasker, and when she walked laps at exercise class she kept track of the number of laps on one hand and on the other, the number of rosary prayers she was saying.

Her exercises certainly showed in her daily life.  I remember her climbing ladders to go mulberry-picking on the farm and going on hikes with us on Murphy Girl trips.  I also remember the late Terry Henion, husband of Wilma’s daughter Kriss, laughing about how Wilma and Vivian were always several steps in front of everyone else.

I think we all remember Wilma as the kindest of women, who had a gentle sense of humor and always delighted in everyone’s accomplishments.  She was easy to laugh with, especially when she was beating you at canasta or bridge or pinochle.

She was wonderful at remembering everyone’s birthdays and Valentine’s Day.  Her cards were always beautifully written in cursive, the message on the card always simple and loving.  And I don’t know about the rest of you but I still have a stack of $2 bills from her.

Wilma lived at the Exeter Care Center for the last 5-6 years but it never took away her spunk.  As we all know, her room was always stocked with multiple types of chocolate and she always had ice cream bars in the freezer in the common room.  She took care of the flowers outside and watched the birds and knitted things for the family and played cards.

What not everyone knew though is that she and Vivian also always had a secret little stash of booze in their room.  Our cousin Rachael used to laugh about how they must be having a ball living together, and that it was “just like living in the dorms!”  Additionally, Wilma also kept the priest’s vestments in her closet for when he came to say mass once a week.

Grandma and Pearl

Grandma and Pearl

Wilma was stunning to me throughout my life.  As a little girl I used to listen to stories of her riding her horse Pearl to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, and how she would play in the hay bales out on the Votipka farm just like my mother did, on the Murphy farm.

She was a wonderful grandmother, giving me a taste of the farm life from an early age.  One of my earliest memories was when I would go out to visit at the farm and sleep in her bed with her, and get up in the morning and take milk out to the stray kitties who lived in the old grain silos.

I can’t imagine a better person to look up to than my grandmother.  She lived every day with love and integrity, taking care of her children and her grandchildren and great grandchildren and any other child that came into her sight.

Wilma was a beautiful woman inside and out.  I can’t help but mention one of my favorite stories told by Vivian.  Vivian took great pride in the Votipka sisters being well-known in Filmore County for having long, attractive, shapely legs.  “You know they call us the legs sisters!” Vivian said to me.  (I think we’re all going to have to fight over that cardboard cut-out of Vivian at the beach that was in Grandma’s room!)

Grandma, I am sad to have you gone but there’s a part of you living in all of us—the Votipka clan lives on with your inspiring love as an example of strength and how to live with such dignity, grace and kindness.

My grandmother was a gem, loved by all who knew her.  It has been a pleasure to speak with you about her today.  May God bless her, and all of us.

*This Czech translation is half-correct and half-what-the-phrase-sounded-like that my Aunts told me. 

**Apparently she didn’t go to China.  I was told this a day later after delivering the eulogy.  It was just Vivian that went.

The Votpika generations carry on, toasting the life and the love!

The Votipka generations carry on, toasting the life and the love!

All things go, all things go

“That’s Chicago for ya,” my uncle said, as I hugged him in the mattress department of Macys in downtown Chicago. I had just told him I got offered a job at the Illinois Housing Department Authority in the communications department.  They called me about twenty minutes after I left the interview.

It’s an awesome job, and the building is located right on Michigan Avenue, between the river and the Trib.

“That’s like working at the Rockefeller Centre,” Quin told me.

Fast-paced and sharp I had to be all weekend, amid a sea of changes in every aspect of my life.

“It’s okay to cry on the train, I do it all the time,” my friend Nina said to me.  I stayed with Nina on Saturday night.  We met two years ago in Krakow when she couchsurfed with me.  “Now we get to be real friends!” she said.  Ah, traveling friends.  The undying bond.

I couldn’t eat much all weekend, from booze Saturday to anxiety constantly and nerves and excitement and maybe a new apartment.  As fast-pace as my new job came about, I’ve had to try to figure out my apartment situation just as quickly.  I found one that I love and applied for it, but was turned down for having not bad credit, but no credit.  And they won’t take an out-of-state co-signer.  I frantically beseech John and Sophie W. to help me.

“We’re going to have to come up with new names for you two since you’ll be around for the next two years!” John said.  We all get a kick out of two Sophies being in the same room together.

So I wait, frantically, at my desk, hoping that my questionable future landlord will take them as co-signers, and reporting my news to the folks who helped me get this job.

I still can’t believe it.  It’s all happening.


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