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Moving to Warsaw: A (Simple) Neighborhood Guide

Moving to any new place is always confusing. The choices of neighborhoods can be confusing and overwhelming. Add a language barrier, a hectic work schedule, cold weather (in my case) and the whole process can easily become a nightmare. There are a couple of not-so-great ways you can go about this:

  1. Resort to the good ol’ Gumtree! Where you basically have to master the Google Translate technique (and I recommend you install the Chrome extension!)
  2. Hire a real estate agent! In Warsaw real estate agents charge up to 50% of rent to help you find an apartment. Hmmm…I say not worth it!
  3. Solicit the help of a local co-worker or a friend. Just be prepared to be paying for that favor for a long time.

As you may have guessed I chose to go with not-so-great-but-seemed-like-the-best-choice #1. I have become a master at translating Polish sites and capturing important pieces of information. Once I started looking at the listings I realized I had to get to know the neighborhoods, this required investigation, which for me meant: WALKING…a whole lot of walking all over Warsaw! I had a basic idea of what I wanted and liked. So, let’s start by taking a look at the different neighborhoods:

  • Żoliborzis one of the northern districts of Warsaw. It is also where I have been living my first few months in Warsaw. I would describe it as green, quite, and pretty. There are a lot of small parks around the neighborhood. So, it’s great for walking especially for families and people with dogs. It is also directly connected to the center via busses (#116, #503) and the metro.  Pl. Wilsona is 4 stops away from the Centrum Station. One of my favorite bars in Warsaw is in Zoliborz, Coco d’Oro, where they serve delicious Sri Lankan food.
  • Old Town: As the name suggests Old Town is the oldest historic district of Warsaw. Although initially, established in the 13th century what stands today was meticulously rebuilt after the city was destroyed in World War II. Old Town is pretty, colorful and busy. Some of the tucked away residencies offer some quite away from the touristy hustle & bustle. It is quite well connected with busses to the rest of the city, but expect to walk a lot since most of the Old Town is a pedestrian zone.
  • PowiśleLiterally means near-the-VistulaThis is probably my second favorite neighborhood if not my favorite. This neighborhood is happening! Surrounded by beautiful little parks, the Warsaw University Library (which has an amazing rooftop garden that overlooks the entire city), and a great selection of bars and restaurants. This is a quite central location accessible via busses and if you ride a bicycle it’s one of the more bike-friendly neighborhoods in Warsaw. Some of my favorite hang outs here include: OSIR Cycle Culture Cafe, Warszawa Powiscle, and Solec 44. And if you’re crazy about street art as I am, you’ll love taking a stroll down Aleje Ujazdowskie and getting a taste of Warsaw’s vibrant street art  and graffiti culture.
  • ŚródmieścieMeaning city center or downtown. With Warsaw’s iconic landmarks Palace of Science & Culture, Warszawa Centralna Station,  and Złote Tarasy shopping mall you cannot get any more central than this. Unlike other city centers, Srodmiescie is not overwhelming and crowded. It is also not a downtown that is solely functional and lively during the week. Many bars, pubs and other venues call this part of town home. If you like being in the center of things, this is  definitely the place for you.  The square of Pl.Zbawiciela is packed with great places to hang out like Charlotte, Plan B Bar, and Coffee Karma. One of my favorite places in downtown is art venue called V9. V9 offers all sorts of art workshops from stenciling to silk screen printing and more. They also regularly hold art exhibitions and small concerts.

Of course, there are many more neighborhoods in Warsaw, but I wanted to cover the ones I know most about. Be sure to check out: Praga, Saska Kepa, Wola and Mokotow.

Happy Apartment Hunting or just neighborhood exploring!

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Poland…not Holland!

Yes, I have made yet another big move! This is probably one of my biggest and randomest thus far! I have moved to Warsaw, Poland.

Old Town Warsaw, which was rebuilt after the war in the 1950s replicating the former city plans.

I accepted a job with TechSoup Global as their Sr. Manager of International Partnerships, EMEA (Europe, Africa and the Middle East…and yes only Americans would come up with such acronyms that lump random parts of the world together!). The reason TechSoup caught my attention is the simple fact that it works to utilize technology for social good. TechSoup’s main focus is to provide non-profit organizations around the world with donated software (and hardware) to enable them to do accomplish their missions more efficiently. Obviously this is a big win for me – my two passions combined: technology + social good.

The reaction to me moving to Warsaw from family and friends has been less than ideal. People tend to have a very uncordial reaction to Poland. The perception is usually a cold, distant, unfriendly, harsh and the list goes on. It also didn’t help that I moved here on December 1st…the very beginning of the unbearable winter ahead of us. I’m not going to pretend like I’m not scared of the winter ahead, but I’m looking forward to the experience. Besides, I’ve already gotten a few tips about ways to face the winter, but the most interesting is the way you wear your scarf:

  • Make sure you have a warm (wool) scarf
  • Tuck in your winter coat colar
  • Wrap the scarf around your coat’s color – this guarantees maximum warmth (here are a few examples: this or this)

In the meantime, I’ll keep correcting folks “Poland…not Holland (or Portland, in some cases).

Why are they there?

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Every time I have entered Tahrir Square over the past few days I have seen the crowds grow bigger, their chants become louder, their sense of cause become more determined. But despite all of those things, I’ve kept asking myself ‘why are they there?’ Why are they so determined? Why are they so loud?

When you enter Tahrir Square you’re usually met with huge masses of men…particularly young men between the ages of 15-35. They’re university students, cab drivers, college eductaed professionals that are  unemployed, etc. A generation that was born and have lived all of its life under the Mubarak regime. A generation(s) that was given no opportunities and resources to excel in a hobby or encouraged to think critically throughout their education. A generation(s) that was often described as corrupt, useless, ignorant, and more. It’s a generation that was robbed of its creativity, individuality, but most importantly of its sense of purpose.

When you walk around Tahrir, you find many of these young men assuming roles that lend them legitimacy to claim and feel  a sense of purpose. You have the ambulance line human shield guys, who are constantly telling people to walk behind the rope and leave the road empty for the ambulance. You have the motorbike ambulance guys, usually two guys on a motorcycle that rush in to the frontlines to rescue the fallen ones and bring them back to the field hospitals. You have the sign makers, who are usually writing signs like “Hospital” or “Clear the Road”. Then you have the field hospital guards, those are the ones that guard the field hospital from random bypassers and direct them to take another route. You also have the people collecting donations and supplies from different meet-up points and taking them to Tahrir. And of course you have the heroes who make it to the frontline, get attacked and hurt and go back for more.

For people like myself that wondered why are they there…that’s why! They want to feel needed and wanted. They want to contribute and be able to get recognition for it. They want a sense of purpose that makes them want to do something. And guess what they are doing something that several generations behind them weren’t able to do.

You all found your purpose; keep fighting for it!

Witnessing the People’s Victory!

[Original blog post on Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice Blog]

The day my last blog post was published, the plane I was on, landed in the Cairo International Airport a little after 9pm on Thursday. Despite the crispy cool weather, tension was high in the air in Cairo. As I listened to the disappointing speech of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the car with my mother and a friend I met on the plane, I started thinking about how much longer this was going to take, how many more lives would have to be lost, how many businesses and schools would have to remain closed, and how much longer the world was going to pay attention to what was going on in Egypt.
I could hardly sleep that night. I kept thinking about what could the following morning hold for the Egyptian people. How violent was this ruthless government going to get in hopes to stay in power!I remember hugging and kissing my mom goodbye in the morning. I could see in her youthful eyes her strong desire to be on the streets with us. She kept reminding me “to be careful” and “not to do anything crazy.” 

After holding a democratic vote with a group of friends we decided to head to the State Television building. State-controlled television had launched a campaign propaganda misinforming the public about the numbers of protesters and launching and anti-revolution campaign with famous actors and public figures.
After spending a few hours at the State TV, my friend Nora (who also returned to Egypt from Brussels to join the protests a week earlier) and I decided to head to the Presidential Palace where another demonstration was taking place. We were making plans with a group of protesters about spending the night at the Presidential Palace when all of a sudden we heard screams coming from the other end of the crowd. We ran through the crowd towards a car that was blasting the radio. As I was running towards the crowd I accidentally bumped into older woman, about my mom’s age, who grabbed me ad hugged and me and started shouting: “He stepped down! He stepped down!”

Army soldier protecting the State TV building in Cairo

A group of us jumped in a car and immediately drove to Tahrir Square. There are very few words that can explain how I felt at that exact moment. Seeing so many people out on the streets of Cairo waving the Egyptians flags high in the sky, singing cheerful and nationalistic chants and songs and children dancing on the streets was a sight I did not predict in a million years.

We entered the busy Tahrir Square and I immediately felt the change. This was not just the fall of a corrupt dictator and his regime; this was the uprising of a people who have been silenced and ignored for 30 years. Growing up in Egypt as a woman, I always avoided crowded spaces for fear of sexual harassment, a growing problem across the country. A problem that has not been fully addressed in Egypt and in the media. But this time, I felt different. I felt like I could walk the streets of Cairo as a woman and nothing would happen to me. It was because we were all connected. We were all connected to the spirit of change and the soul of Egypt. Throughout the whole uprising, we all wanted the same thing. We all wanted freedom and democracy.

Nora and I in Talaat Harb Square (near Tahrir Square) on Friday, February 11 with a group of young Egyptian women we met on the street

It is not to say that Egypt’s movement for democracy has not been impacted by gender violence, the report that Lara Logan, a CBS reporter, was sexually assaulted while reporting in Cairo on the evening of February 11, the night Mubarak stepped down has not been forgotten. My friends and I were horrified when that story broke. Some of us were even disappointed that it took a non-Egyptian woman’s painful story to shed light on an issue many of us were too familiar with. I have high hopes that in this new democratic Egypt, the issues of gender violence against women will be addressed. I believe that the new Egypt will work on protecting and serving ALL of our citizens, not just the rich and male.
The next morning young Egyptians all over the Cairo took to the streets with broomsticks and trash-bags and cleaned the city. It was magical to see the usually littered streets of Downtown Cairo spotless. As a friend put it: “We overthrow a dictator by night and clean our city streets by day!” Egyptians all over the city were cleaning streets, directing traffic, forming groups to help Egypt’s transitional period…Long live the Do-It-Yourself Revolution!
Update since this post was written:
On International Women’s Day, March 8, thousands of women took to the streets of Cairo and gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate their achievements as part of the #Jan25 revolution and to voice their demands in a democratic Egypt. Unfortunately, the peaceful demonstrators were met were met by violence when men started to verbally abuse and shove the women, telling them that they should go home where they belong. Women were a major force in the Egyptian revolution as they are in everyday Egyptian society. I believe that for a nation to advance, the rights of all its citizens should be preserved and respected by the law. While it might be a steep hill climb to equality, I believe that once reached the views will be breathtaking.

Tales from Israel: Bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

(I wrote this on the bus)

My mother and I are sitting on the very last row on the bus (the last two available seats next to each other). Next to me is a Palestinian man, who has multiple mobile phones and literally seems to have not stopped talking on them since we got on the bus, and next to him a group of the most annoying and obnoxious Israeli teenagers (2 boys at the end of our row, and a boy and girl on the seat in front of them). The annoying group of kids are loud; one of them is playing the music on his phone and people all the way in the front of the bus could hear it. I just turned to him for the second time to ask him to turn down the music.
Two rows in front of us there are two Russian-looking girls, light skin, pointy features, dark black hair and striking green eyes. The girl next to the window has her shoulder-length hair in a ponytail with sunglasses fashionably resting on her head holding her bangs back. You can’t miss the shiny silver eyebrow piercing she has. The one in the aisle seat is wearing a white bandanna over her short black wavy hair. They look young; maybe in their early 20’s.
At one point, the girl with the white bandanna leaned over towards her friend and it seemed like she was examining the the pendant dangling on her chest. The look in her eyes made me think they weren’t just friends; it was more than an approving or complimenting friend’s look. And to my surprise, half a second later, my suspicion was confirmed by a loving, yet subtle lover’s peck on the mouth. It was so natural, yet so out of place!
What was about to come was what shocked me the most! The annoying teenagers caught a glimpse of that innocent kiss and quickly started tormenting the young couple. One of the boys shouted out: Lesbians?!?! They started making kissing noises and calling them names (all in Hebrew, but I could detect the tone). And then they started calling the girl “white bandanna” hoping that their annoyance would pay off and she would turn around and say something. I was shocked, saddened, and above all happy for the young couple for being courageous about showing their love to one another!

Walking the streets of Jerusalem you cannot escape the magnificent Dome of the Rock

Tales from the Holy Land: The Welcome

Step to the side, Miss:

I arrive at the airport at a little past 6pm on Thursday evening. In my backpack, I have a folder stuffed with letters – a support letter from Google stating my position at Google and why I was visiting. Along with that, my friend at the State Department sent me an official state department-issued letter for American of Arab origin. Although many told me to be too worried about entering the country, I definitely had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake, but I kept telling myself that if anything it’s going to be great story in retrospect (as my friend Tim would say). Ok, so back to Thursday evening – I get to the immigration line, I confidently walk up to the Foreigners line, and hand over my passport to the young-looking immigration officer. And this is the conversation that went on:

 

Me: Hi
Officer: Hello. Passport please.
(I hand her the passport open to the personal details page)
Officer: What’s your name?
Me: Hebatallah Gamal (dying to tell her that it is right in front of her)
Officer: Where were you born?
Me: (again thinking – it’s freakin’ right there) Cairo, Egypt.
Officer: Why are you in Israel?
Me: Business.
Officer: Where do you work?
Me: I work for Google.
Officer: in Israel?
Me: No, in California, but I’m here to visit the Tel Aviv office for some meetings.
Officer: Do you have a letter or something?
Me: Yes, sure. There you go.
Officer: Can you please wait here (and she walks off out of the booth with my passport)

I then get asked to step to the side, where I was escorted to waiting room with a TV, vending machine and handful of other foreigners, who looked like they have been waiting for a while. I immediately open my laptop and try to go online in hopes of catching anyone from the Tel Aviv office online, but who was I kidding I was sure no one would be online – it was Thursday evening (the equavilant of our Friday in the US – end of the week). Of course, internet wasn’t working and my laptop was being slow. Ten minutes later I was asked to come into an office, where another officer lady asked me to sit down at a desk across from her and her big black computer monitor. She then started asking me the exact same series of questions the first officer asked. I answered politely and was again asked to go wait in that room. Another 20 minutes later or so, a nice looking man came into the waiting room and gave a young group of 3 (2 young guys and a girl) their passports back and wished them a nice time. He then returned less than 5 minutes later and asked me to follow him. He then brought me into yet another office and started asking me the same questions, although he was a bit more detailed and definitely tried to ask me “tricky” questions, like: What do you do for Google?What’s your title? Little does he know that my freaking title at Google is a mouth-full and a little hard to forget :) What I thought was extremely funny is that at one point he said: You are not a trouble maker, are you? I don’t think you are who we’re looking for, but we have to do this to be sure!

So, I never felt more dangerous in my life, but like I said in the beginning – a story worth telling at the end.