1. Traditional foods you never learned to cook.
You regret thinking that cooking traditional Polish dishes was too elaborate and time-consuming. Now, you find yourself daydreaming of biting into pierogi’s thick homemade pasta and tasting the sauerkraut and wild mushrooms filling. You imagine yourself cutting the crunchy boiled cabbage on gołąbki with a fork, rice and meat insides spilling onto tomato sauce. You would kill for a slice of royal sernik, cheesecake that’s dense and delicate at the same time. Sure, you can buy some of these ready-made at a Polish shop, but they’re nowhere near as good as your mum’s.
2. Your painfully honest friends.
Your friends back home don’t try to protect your feelings and you appreciate that. You prefer they tell you straight that you’re an idiot for still thinking you’re in a long-distance relationship with that Peruvian guy who promised he wouldn’t forget you — but who hasn’t talked to you once since he went back home two months ago. You really prefer that your friends tell you that the new dress makes your backside look wider than it really is, instead of nodding politely when you ask if you look good.
3. Picking wild mushrooms.
On a sunny September morning, your whole family would put their rain boots on, grab a wicker basket and head to a forest. You would walk amidst the rusty red, sunburnt yellow and dry brown trees, pine scent mixed with the wet-earth smell entering your nostrils. You would walk slowly looking left and right to make sure you didn’t overlook a precious borowik or delicious kurki. Upon return, you would clean your treasured finds from grass and soil, wash, slice and spread on a rack. Shortly after inserting them in a low-heat oven for drying, an enticing smell of humidity, moss and woods would fill your house.
4. Soups that can be cold or sweet.
Back home, your mum would make soup and serve it as the first course at obiad, the biggest meal of the day. She would chop up vegetables neatly and leave the soup simmering on the stove for hours, until the veggies were butter-soft and all the flavors merged together. Now, far away from home, you miss botwinka; you would die for sour-tasting ogórkowa and kapuśniak soups, as well as thick grochówka infused with marjoram. On summer afternoons you long for creamy beetroot or cucumber cold soups or sweet soups, like strawberry or blueberry with round and fluffy kluski.
5. Celebrating holidays with palms, colored eggs, opłatek and Christmas carols.
You are by no means as religious as your parents and grandparents, but you love the spirit of religious celebrations in Poland whenever you happen to spend Christmas or Easter far from home. You miss the colorful palms that everyone carries to church on Palm Sunday. Dried wheat, rye and grass crowns, colored in purple, pink, green and yellow, tied around a short stick in an intricate design sit in a vase at home for weeks afterwards. You miss peeling painted eggs at Sunday Easter festive breakfast to discover that your egg white is now blue or purple. You laugh thinking back about getting the staircase in your building flooded on Easter Monday, as your family and neighbors ran around pouring water on each other. You wish you were at home to share opłatek with your family before Christmas dinner, placing hay under the tablecloth and listening to Polish carols.
6. Your grandparents.
You marvel at how your grandparents managed to maintain such a positive outlook on life, having survived the war, occupation and years of communism regime. Whenever you go back to Poland, you make sure to visit your living grandparents and light a candle on the graves of the ones who passed away.
7. Sipping Żywiec in a beer garden on a city square.
When summer approaches, all bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza of many cities invite passersby to enjoy the warmth of the long evenings outside. They fence a portion of the sidewalk in front of their business, set out wooden and metal banks and hang red geraniums in flowerpots. You miss ordering a national beer with a strong hop taste and smell and watching people walk on pebbled streets with colorful kamienice for the background.
8. Cheap vodka that doesn’t give you hangover.
You could buy a bottle of good vodka at 20 zlotys without having to worry about its potential violent hangover effects (well, unless you really overdo your shots). You miss the sunny tint of Żubrówka with its hint of an herbal flavoring, caramel-colored and honey-tasting Krupnik and traditional clear but actually tasteless, except maybe for a slight sting on the tongue, Soplica. Whenever you go back to visit, you make sure to stock up with a bottle or five.
9. Going to piwnica bars.
All major Polish cities are lined with kamienice, hundreds of years old residential buildings. Under each of them weaves a spacious underground network of cellars and corridors, which historically were used for storing food supplies and coal. Today, the majority of the cellars (piwnica) have been converted into bars and clubs. As you step down the stairs, you feel cooler air on your face and palms. You open the heavy wooden door, fitted in welded metal frame, and the vibration of jazz music and conversations overflows you. The bitter smell of beer mixes with a sweet note of raspberry syrup, as well as humidity of the ancient walls. The labyrinth of corridors and rooms and dimmed lighting create an intimate atmosphere for nightlong talks and laughs.
10. Being surrounded by Poland’s lakes, mountains and plains.
You’ve dived in the Caribbean, slept under the Saharan sky and hitchhiked across Europe. But after years of traveling, an old Polish saying resonates with you: “Cudze chwalicie, a swego nie znacie” (roughly “the grass is always greener on the other side.”) You almost feel like you forsook the beauty of your own country for world wanderlust. You wish you could spend a summer on a sailing boat in the Mazuria Lake District. You have a memory of visiting Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains on a family vacation long time ago, but wonder what it would be like to spend a night in Dolina Chochołowska and wake up to a misty sunrise. You went to Łeba sand dunes on a school trip, but wish you could learn to speak a bit of the Kashubian dialect and take part in sobótka rituals.
Photo: Viktor Dobai