I KNEW APPROXIMATELY THREE phrases in Polish before I arrived in the country. Although I would learn more — including several obscenities taught to me by friends, who found it hilarious to hear an American swear in their language — none proved more useful than przepraszam.
The word, which translates to “I’m sorry,” is perhaps most valuable on an invitation to a Polish home — a minefield of potential faux pas.
ONE OF MY STUDENTS, Maria, invited me to her village for a weekend. From the bus stop we walked to her parents’ house, where she lived with her husband and their two young kids. The road was unpaved and it was muddy from an October rain shower.
Three construction workers in vests were filling a pothole. One of them called out to Maria. She laughed and said something in reply. I noticed she clutched her six-year-old son’s hand tighter.
There were chickens in the yard. Maria’s dad put down his armload of firewood. He hugged his daughter and grandson. I said miło mi, nice to meet you, and he laughed heartily and kissed my hand.
The kids chased each other through the living room. Maria’s mom yelled at them to be quiet. She greeted me with a hug.
She brought us bowls of deep pink beet soup, barszcz. It was fragrant and spicy and light, not the heavy, murky purple stuff I had imagined was borscht. The second course was a cut of pork doused in thick gravy, with a heap of mashed potatoes and a tangy red cabbage salad on the side. I tackled it in earnest, but in the end couldn’t finish it.
“Przepraszam,” I said to Maria’s husband, who was sitting beside me. “Do you want the rest?” He laughed and waved my offer away. Apparently wasting food was not as serious an offense as I’d thought.
ANETA RENTED a second-floor student flat a few doors down from me. One night she invited me for dinner. I left my snow-caked boots by the door, beside Aneta’s and her roommates’. The snow had begun to melt off them, creating a dirty puddle on the floor. There was a heavy warm aroma from the kitchen.
I sat at the table and sipped tea while Aneta cooked. She had lived in Greece and learned how to cook there. She opened the fridge and took out a fish, shrink-wrapped on a foam tray. She tore off the cellophane and declared, “You are beautiful!” and laughed and kissed the floppy wet fish before dropping it into the pan. She fried the whole thing, head and all, and we ate it with rice on the side. The bones prickled as I picked them out of my teeth.
Aneta left the fish head, with its cold staring eyeballs, out on the balcony for the cat. I told her the new phrases I had recently learned. “Przepraszam!” she exclaimed. “That is a good word!”
ON CHRISTMAS EVE, my friend Renata’s babcia made pierogi. She motioned for me to help.
We rolled out the dough on the countertop, coated in flour so it wouldn’t stick. Then she showed me how to make little circles of dough with the rim of a glass. The filling, minced cabbage and mushrooms, was folded in, and the pierogi sealed around the edges so there would be no escaping during the boiling process.
We laid them out in rows on a towel. Her dumplings were neat and perfectly shaped. Mine were lumpy, with bits of cabbage sticking out. “Przepraszam,” I said, blushing at my incompetence. Babcia chuckled.
IN THE SPRING my father visited, and we traveled to the village of our ancestors, along with a translator we’d met in Krakow, to meet some long-lost relatives we’d tracked down. The cousins offered us a welcome feast worthy of visiting dignitaries. My cousin’s wife had laid the table with breads, pastries, deli meats, potato salad, and cheese.
We sat and talked through our translator. My newfound cousin opened a bottle of sliwowica, a potent plum brandy, to toast our arrival. We raised our glasses and drank a healthy shot. There was laughter and another round. And another. We ate and laughed and drank some more. My head was swimming in the brandy.
After some time my cousin’s wife brought out platters from the kitchen, heaped with meat and cheese, pasta, and a whole fish trapped in gelatin like a bug encased in amber.
My father and I glanced at each other. Our stomachs were full of alcohol and pastry and bread and cheese. I couldn’t conceive eating another bite. But our new family looked at us expectantly. Our translator smiled and nodded encouragingly.
I held out my empty plate.