A Jammer Abroad: My excellent (Euro) adventure

The Roller Derby World Cup is coming up in less than two months, and I recently returned from a Team Poland training weekend that was held in east Berlin, graciously hosted by Bear City. Meeting my Polish teammates and getting some skate time in with them was the main purpose of the trip, but I figured if I’m representing the motherland on the world stage, I should at least visit the place.

After the training weekend, I met up with my German cousin Steve, who, after showing me around Berlin, accompanied me to Krakow and Warsaw. I loved all three cities, and it’s been a while since I posted anything, so here are some of my adventures. And misadventures. Okay, mostly misadventures because this is me we’re talking about.

 

Berlin

For the first leg of my journey, I stayed in a hostel called the A&O Mitte because it was within walking distance from the training venue — a huge and incredibly Soviet sports complex. The hostel itself was under total construction because of course it was, and while my little room was cozy enough, the view was…not great.

A room with a view.

But the training part was a blast. There are a handful of other foreign skaters lending their talents to Team Poland as well — skaters from Dublin, London, and Oslo. There are also a few other Americans, but I was the only one who made it out to Berlin.

A teammate and I visited Quad Skate Shop, the local derby shop, where I bought the best pair of shin guards I have ever had.

Quad Skate Shop in Berlin.

*****

On a side note, I walked all around East Berlin by myself…at night…and never once felt unsafe. Compare that to my hometown in NH, where I expect to get shot walking into an east side gas station in broad daylight.

*****

My cousin and I flew back and forth between Berlin and Krakow via Schoenefeld Airport to save time. “Just so you know,” Steve warned me ahead of time, “the security agents here are known to be a little…mean.”

Compared to Logan Airport, the security check was tiny and looked harmless. There was one small woman inspecting carry-ons who did not approve of the way in which I packed my liquids. She began by screaming at me in German until I nervously told her I only speak English.

“ALL LIQUIDS MUST BE IN A CLEAR BAG.”

She grabbed my gray-colored pouch, unzipped it, looked me straight in the eye, and dumped the contents out into my bin. She began picking up every item and waving it around in the air. 

“THIS! IS A LIQUID. THIS! IS A LIQUID. CLEAR BAGS ONLY!”

She grabbed a clear ziplock bag from a pile behind her and tossed it into my bin.

“NEXT TIME I THROW IT ALL AWAY!”

It was as if I had personally offended her family name or something. She continued to criticize me as I rushed to transfer all my liquids into the Clear Bag of Shame.  

We continued through the line. Steve was amused. “That seemed a bit much,” I murmured to him. “Why would she throw it away? Is she going to remember me?” But then I thought that if any woman was going to remember me and follow through on a threat, it would have been that crazy bitch, and I respect that.

 

Poland, AKA Land of the Pay-Per-Pee Potties

I loved Poland. It was a wonderful blur of flea markets, grass vodka, and antique pinball machines. AND THEN THERE’S THE PIEROGI. AND THE BORSCH. AND THE LOW COST OF EVERYTHING.

One thing I didn’t appreciate so much about Poland was the public bathrooms, which you have to pay to use. And Poland is serious about their pay-per-pee policy. Don’t even think about trying to sneak into one without paying – Polska don’t play that. Oftentimes someone would be sitting outside the restrooms at a goddamn desk like some kind of toilet receptionist or bouncer. They were usually women, and I was usually afraid of them.

 

Krakow

I got good at hanging onto change for bathroom use, like when I went to Auschwitz. Before I begin that story, let me first start off with the surrealness of walking around Krakow and seeing businesses advertising “Auschwitz tour!” and buses with Auschwitz/Birkenau emblazoned on them as a final destination. After an awkward “Do you want to go to Auschwitz” conversation with my German cousin, we ultimately decided to go.

The notorious concentration camp is located outside of Krakow in a town called Osweicim (down the road from a mall), but as mentioned above, there is a plethora of buses providing tourists with direct transportation. Upon boarding, a morbid conversation with the driver ensued, which Steve later recounted to me as going thusly:

“Destination?”

“Auschwitz, one-way.”

“No return?”

“No return.”

It was a rather large bus, and we had to sit in the very back row, which was raised above the rest of the seats. I’m prone to motion sickness, an affliction that showed up as soon as I entered my thirties, yet another little “fuck you” from adulthood.

We might as well have ridden there on a pogo stick. Granted there have been, ahem, much worse conditions in which people have been transported to Auschwitz and maybe I should just shut up about it all, but it was the bounciest, jerkiest ride of my life. Ninety minutes and two Dramamine tablets later, we arrived. I climbed off the bus and immediately took inventory of discrete places to puke.

What is the proper etiquette in this situation? Spewing behind the bus? Blowing chunks into a trash can near one of the commemorative plaques? There were tourists everywhere. Clearly a bathroom was the only option.

Fortunately, I found one in the welcome center, and yes, there was a charge. Change nestled at the bottom of my coat pocket spared the Hassidic tour group from having to watch the gentile emptying her stomach contents all over the symbolic graves of their people. So, for 2 zlotys I went into a stall, dry heaved a few times, washed up, and came out feeling human again.

I was a little turned off by all the people who were posing for selfies, smiling and pointing under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign (which seemed somehow smaller in real life), and in front of rows of barbed wire. It was weird. People are tacky.

Birkenau, on the other hand, was much different. The atmosphere felt more appropriate, more serious, and as the sun set, a heavy fog settled in, creating a more suitable sense of quiet contemplation.

Steve and I got separated early on in Birkenau, and I had wandered near a group of Israeli students who were wearing flags draped over their shoulders like capes for some reason. They were sitting on the ground while a gentleman read to them from a book. I stood there for some time by myself, trying to ascertain Steve’s location via text. It was getting dark and eerie, and very, very quiet. I became suddenly aware that a large man in dark clothes had walked up and was standing there, looming near me, sending glances my way. I was starting to feel a bit creeped out by him, lamenting how even in a historical site women can’t escape the creepiness of men.

I finally realized that he was the group’s bodyguard who did not like that I was standing so close to them. He thought I was the creep. Feeling extremely uncomfortable, I slowly backed away. The group had a few such bodyguards following them through the camp. 

All in all, I was expecting the concentration camp experience to be somber, humbling, and enlightening, but it was mostly awkward, somewhat politicized, and a little pukey.

 

Warsaw

View from our AirBnB.

Warsaw isn’t as old-looking as Krakow. Supposedly it was beautiful back in the day, before it was utterly demolished by the Nazis. Now it’s much more modern looking, with little hints of the barren Soviet era. For example, our AirBnB:

We spent one afternoon walking through a seemingly endless food and grocery market in a more grimey side of Warsaw. Rugged-looking elderly people lined the sidewalks to sell their wares — largely worthless items of clothing, old children’s books, random DVDs, mismatched shoes. They smoked like chimneys and chatted with one another.

We were underwhelmed by the new Warsaw Rising Museum, which was confusing, disorienting, and smacking of the far-right nationalism currently taking hold of the country. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the Pinball Station — a pinball museum/bar located in the back of the sketchiest alley I’ve ever wandered down at night. (We also found a cool one in Krakow.)

I fell in love with the Neon Muzeum, which I highly recommend to fellow design nerds.

Outside the Neon Muzeum, Warsaw.

And yes, Warsaw had its own bathroom debacle. The train station in Warsaw did not have a person on guard, but rather a coin-operated turnstile and a change machine, which begs the question of how much money that system actually generates, but I digress. I stood there with a full bladder and no bills small enough for the machine. I paused for a moment to consider how well my parkour skills would measure up to turnstiles. Then I noticed a security camera and TV monitor pointed at me. Not only were they watching me, but they wanted me to know they were watching me. Someone really, really did not want me to pee for free, and I didn’t want to eff with that person.

So I hurried back to the ticket counter, where Steve was waiting in line. “Please tell me you have 2 zlotys,” I implored.

“Nope.”

I sighed. “I hate this fucking country.”

J/K, Poland was great. I liked Warsaw and I wish I could have spent more time there. Over all, it felt less touristy than Krakow. Parts of it felt a little grimy, a little skanky, and I respect that.

 

Now it’s time for the debacle that was my flight home. And yes, this is bathroom-related as well.

We got a late start on the way to the Berlin airport and of course ended up in traffic. I knew there was a very good chance that I was going to miss this flight. But sitting in my cousin’s mother’s car, I suddenly sensed that I was getting my period. As in, my uterus started wrenching itself inside-out from within.

When we finally pulled up, I said farewell to Steve and ran inside TXL. I headed straight to the bathroom, grateful for not having to pay. Upon confirming that the communists had indeed returned to Berlin (and four days early), I accepted that I couldn’t get on an airplane bleeding. I ran to the airport store, but because this is a man’s world, there were no menstrual supplies to be found.

I did the only thing there was left to do: I tied a sweater around my waist and began begging strange women for tampons.

I turned to the first woman I saw in the store. “Entschuldigung, do you have any…tampons?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Um, tampons…pads…menstruation supplies.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying. Let me ask my husband if he knows that word.”

I shook my head. “He is definitely not going to know.” I pulled out my phone and quickly Googled tampon images. I showed her and she said no, she didn’t have any.

I went back to the ladies’ room and began accosting more women, none of whom spoke English. But Google images being the bridge between all cultures, I was able to ascertain that no woman in all of Germany carries tampons with her, or at least admits it to American tourists.

After a few minutes of this, I was getting desperate. I considered stuffing a tee shirt or something in my pants, as the flight was about to start boarding, and I hadn’t even passed through security. I went to the check-in counter, only to find out that Aer Lingus had long since closed the check-in for that flight. I had missed it and there were no other Aer Lingus flights back to Boston for three days.

Also, none of the women at the counter had a tampon.

Baggage in tow, I found the information desk, which located an Iceland Air flight to Boston leaving in an hour. It was 650€. Ouch, I thought, but ok.

“I’ll take that one,” I said, pulling out my credit card.

“You need to find a ticket counter. We don’t sell tickets here.”

When I found said ticket counter, they quoted 790€ for the same flight.

“But they told me 650 a few minutes ago.”

“Sorry,” said the man, who didn’t seem overly sorry. “The price goes up.”

I swallowed hard and handed him my credit card.

“We don’t accept credit cards.”

“What, really?”

“Cash only.”

In total disbelief, I sat down on a bench, trying to collect my thoughts and figure out how to deal with this flight problem and this vagina problem. There was a woman next to me, about my age, and I noticed that she was quietly crying. I considered checking to see if she was ok, but remembered the probable language barrier and decided against it. I thought to myself, my day has been shit, but at least I’m not crying on an airport bench.

I looked at tickets online on the spotty TXL wireless, while Steve checked remotely, but prices were well into the thousands, which was out of the question. I accepted that I just had to get cash. I went back to the ticket counter and asked, “Where is the nearest ATM? I’m just gonna buy that Iceland Air ticket.”

“It’s too late. We can’t sell you that ticket. Check-in has closed.”

And then he kicked me in the shins. (Not really, but like, might as well have.)

“Okaaaay.” I took a deep breath. The period rage tears were beginning to well up, but I kept them at bay.

“You can see a travel agent upstairs to find other flights. They may be able to take credit.”

I nodded and walked away, despite having no idea where the travel agent office was. After rage-walking for some time, I eventually found it. Not only did they quote me 1800€, but they didn’t accept credit cards either.

“We’re cash-only for tickets bought same-day. There’s an ATM outside.”

“But I don’t have 1800€ to withdraw. Do you have a tampon, at least?”

“Nein.”

Then the tears started to roll. I got up with as much dignity possible while having blood dripping down the inside of my legs, and sat on the floor outside the office. Now I was the pitiful crying girl.

Passersby were staring. I tried to wipe my nose, which just left a long string of snot from my face to my hand. I tried wiping again and again, but that just created more snot strings. This is a new low, I thought to myself.

Finally, I got up and started rage-walking again, with intermittent tears, because I had reached the crazy monster part of my menstrual cycle.

I must have walked across the entire airport, as I eventually came across a pharmacy. Dignity at last! After purchasing the most generic and gigantic pads I have ever seen, I found a (free) bathroom and changed my clothes.

After speaking to Aer Lingus over the phone as well as several other ticket counters, I found British Airways. I asked if there were any flights to Boston.

“Yes. There’s a connection in London, but you’ll get to Boston by 9:30 tonight. It’s 1090€. That is the cheapest you’re going to find.”

“Do you accept credit cards?”

“Yes, of course.”

I could have kissed him. I bought the tickets, at what should have been an outrageous price, but it seemed ok at that point.

 

So, the happy ending is that I flew British Airways and got super drunk off their complementary wine. God bless the Brits.

 

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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Shopping for roller derby wheels

 

I’ve been playing this sport for a long time. I’ve never understood the anxieties over wheel setups. People often ask me for my advice, and I always feel like anything I say needs an asterisk. Since there are no playoff tournaments this week, here are my general thoughts on wheels.

If you’re stressing about what wheel to use when, here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter. Except for outdoor versus indoor wheels, there really is no objectively right or wrong wheel. So chillax, my dude.

If you don’t want to pay $150 for a set of high-quality wheels, then don’t. Go for the $50 ones. There’s no rule saying you have to own multiple sets, either. You can still be awesome even with those worn-in hand-me-downs. You can have a killer season and never once change your wheels.

Sure, there are extreme situations when a floor can be really sticky or really slippery, but it all boils down the individual. Different positions, skill sets, and even body types play into what works best. You can spend a fortune on wheels, guaranteeing that you have all durometers and styles for all surfaces and carry them all around with you to every away game. People do that. But it’s not going to make you a better skater.

A good athlete can adapt to any situation. Slick floor? Take smaller strides and allow for longer stops. Grippy floor? Sit lower into stops and be prepared for a fast game. The condition of the floor is just another factor that can’t be controlled, just like the calls of the ref crew, the strategies of the other team, or the drunkenness of the fans. But you can adapt to these conditions.

If your fundamentals suck, they are going to suck on any surface. Rather than stressing about wheels, get really good at edgework. Get your stops as clean as possible. Train on as many different surfaces as possible. Improve your core and lower body strength. The floor is not your enemy; your lack of edgework is. Get to know the wheels that you have, and get really good at adjusting your skating style.

All that having been said, wheels do wear down. Someday you will need an upgrade. So what should you try?

Beginners (first 6 months): Literally anything. You won’t feel the difference. You’re still learning how to skate; you’re still wobbly, you have no edges to speak of, and you have limited speed. Different durometers won’t change how any of that feels. I’ve seen freshies do great things on some pretty terrible setups. (Take it from someone who started out on Cobras.)

Blockers: Lower durometers (80s range). Blockers must be able to dig in on stops and hold at low speeds. Lower durometers allow for more grip with less effort. Wider wheels will give you a little more traction.

Jammers: Harder durometers (90s range). Unlike blockers, jammers need to have agility at high speeds. Harder wheels mean more speed with less effort. Narrow wheels will also aid in agility. However, coming out of turns at high speeds may cause extra slippage, while stops are generally easier to control with more slide. Figure out which you are more concerned about. You can start with some kind of middle ground by using “pushers” (grippier wheels on the left side of each skate) or consider purchasing hybrid wheels.

 

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

  • -As your edgework improves, you may find a preference to harder wheels. As a default, start with lower, grippier durometers and work your way up.
  • -Heavier wheels will allow you some more stability, but will make you less agile. Lighter wheels are faster and put less stress on your feet.
  • -If you train more recreationally, say 1-2 times per week for only a few months out of the year, there’s no need to invest in high-level wheels. But if you do train more intensely, it will be worth investing in wheels that will last a long time.

Many skaters do a lot of blocking AND jamming. There is no one wheel that will work in every situation. So basically, get used to doing everything with whichever setup you choose. While there are different factors to consider that may aid in certain circumstances, remember: it’s not the wheel or the floor, it’s your skill and adaptability that make the difference.

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Welcome Back: Post-Tournament Introvert Hangover

Welcome Back: Post-Tournament Introvert Hangover

**Deep exhale**

I’m just going to skip over the obvious OH MY GOD WE WON D2 post, as I’m still processing all that and have already had that freakout over various social media platforms.

I’ll just say quickly that I am positively bursting with pride over my team and how well we came together during those games. I’m really glad I got to jam in three of the five games Boston played (and won), including the championship game against Paris. Of all the tournaments I’ve been to, this one was by far the most fun and memorable. I am exceptionally lucky to be on this team, and I’ll certainly miss those skaters who are retiring this year.

 

Decompressing

I’m currently in the post-tournament recovery period.

As a classic introvert, I have to decompress after being constantly surrounded by people for five days. While the team GroupMe chatter continues with gossip over who was praised in a game recap, who drank what out of the trophy, and who threw up on the plane ride home, I need some time away from the noise.

In addition to being around your teammates nonstop, most of your time during these tournaments is spent in crowded public places – airports, hotels, restaurants, and convention centers.

It’s a massive energy suck for those of us who generally avoid those situations.

As soon as I got home yesterday afternoon, I didn’t leave the house. I stayed in, caught up on Game of Thrones, and ate my way through the kitchen like a human Pac-Man.

Other ways I plan on spending the next several days:

  • – Living in an ice bath
  • – Drinking hot tea after said ice bath
  • – Reading Kurt Vonnegut
  • – Listening to The Drums’ new album
  • – Foam rolling my calf muscles to the point of liquefaction
  • – Speaking to no one

 

The Bubble

That’s not to say that a part of me doesn’t miss all the stimulation. The first 24 hours after a whirlwind championship weekend always feels like time has slowed, like your derby bubble has burst.

In the real world, most 30-somethings have lives that don’t include ref calls, plus or minus point averages, or competitive brackets. It’s hard to come back to a civilization that doesn’t really understand or care about where you’ve just left your proverbial blood, sweat, and tears.

This “bubble factor” could be why it’s so hard to take a full off-season, let alone leave the sport completely. I’ve been playing for nine years and will probably continue many more until I find something that matches up to derby. One of my biggest life fears is that nothing will ever be as fun as this, and it’s a thought that seems to creep up on me more after the season ends and I’m left with derby withdrawal.

MOVING ON, I’m really looking forward to the D1 tournaments over the next few weeks. I’ll be watching every single game, albeit consumed with jealously and envy for teams that are still safely encased in their derby bubbles.

 

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Onward to D2 / Owning My Okayness

The WFTDA post-season is about to kick off this weekend in Pittsburgh with the Division 2 playoff/championship tournament. For the first time ever, Boston will be going to D2 instead of D1, and the feelings I’m feeling are the following:

  • A. Excitement
  • B. Disappointment
  • C. General ambivalence between A and B

I know, I’m being kind of a baby about the whole thing.

For starters, there’s no shame in being in D2. We all know that D2 playoffs showcase some of the best up-and-coming teams playing nail-biter games down to the last jam. Moreover, there are some great skaters in D2 that could absolutely hold their own against the best of the best.

But maybe that’s why I’m more nervous going into this tournament. We may have a much bigger shot at winning a few games and moving up, so in a way, there’s more pressure. The tournament is happening in three days, so I’ve been trying to put all that petty rankings stuff out of my head and focus on the task at hand.

That having been said, it was hard to see those rankings released after our rough weekend in San Francisco. It didn’t feel like those matchups necessarily represented what we were capable of (The Apex agrees). But a quick cure to that disappointment is watching footage of the teams we will be facing in Pittsburgh.

This is when I get excited. I’ve never had the opportunity to play most of these teams and after studying them, they are certainly not to be underestimated.

Lesson: Don’t be an elitist baby about rankings. Derby has a way of weeding those types out.

*****

I’m Okay and That’s Okay

The thing of it is, I transferred to Boston because they were (and remain) the highest ranked team in the region. Despite coming from a then-D1 team, it took me nearly two challenging years to even make alternate for the Boston Massacre. Now that I’m finally a primary jammer, we’ve slipped in rankings and are even slightly lower ranked than my previous team had been.

It is what it is. No team is immune to this. It’s certainly not going to stop us from getting back to where we were.

Sometimes Your Best Isn’t Enough (personally speaking)

Even now I get pushed off the roster sometimes. It’s part of being a jammer, competing for a limited number of roster spots. I still see myself getting surpassed by jammers who have not been playing nearly as long as I have. That’s not something that ever happened at the smaller, less competitive leagues I’ve been on.

Playing for such a challenging team has made me face the fact that hard work does not equal talent. To truly stand out or excel at anything, it takes some kind of combination of those two factors. But I’ve learned to accept that no matter how hard I work, I will never be as good as those with that natural edge.

It’s not that I think I suck. I’m just not where I thought I would be at this point, despite working my ass off.

We’re going into this tournament with a deep jammer rotation, and I’ve already been benched for the first game. So it goes.

Basically, the most you can do in roller derby, and probably life in general, is to try to be better than you were yesterday. I won’t be a star jammer on a team like this, for a city like this, but I know I’m far better than the jammer I was before I transferred.

And I’m proud of my jammer teammates. I love seeing them do amazing things at practice. I love having such a high bar. When one of us succeeds, we all do.

Anyway, see you in Pittsburgh. I may not be playing in every game, but I’ll be there.

*****

If you’d like to tune in to the games, they will be livestreamed via WFTDA.tv beginning on Friday.

 

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Welcome to kswirko.com 2.0

 

Upon finally accepting that people outside of roller derby don’t generally care about roller derby, along with some technical problems that I didn’t know how to handle, I scrapped my original website.

Back then, it was more of a landing base for potential sponsors — a way to raise money and maybe publish the occasional blog post about the sport. I searched for sponsors for over a year, but I just couldn’t generate any interest.

What was going well, however, was the blogging part. I wrote a piece on sexism in the sport that went viral within 48 hours and was even picked up by other derby websites.

So I’m starting over again, except now it will be more of a blog format, with roller derby being only one of the many topics. In essence, I just want to write. About weird things. In a fun way. Maybe make friends with other weirdos in the process.

So welcome to the new kswirko.com, aka free-beer.org (I learned how to redirect domains and yes, I paid $11 for free-beer.org).

Stay tuned for kswirko.com 3.0, in which I will blog about my foray into the cutthroat world of International Ping Pong; kswirko.com 4.0, in which I will share my experiences of being part of a clandestine human cyborg experiment; and kswirko.com 5.0, in which I will document the glory of fighting in the Martian Wars as a human/cyborg hybrid.

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