Your summers involved eating sour cherries and cherries straight from the trees, raspberries straight from a bush and strawberries straight from a plant. And it wasn’t that you didn’t wash the fruit that caused you pain, you just couldn’t stop and ate way too much!
It was either a golden sponge cake layered with whipped cream and strawberries, a rhubarb crumble yeast-cake or a peach cheesecake, which had to be available for any guests visiting on the weekend.
Your grandparents most likely lived in the countryside and you spent many summer vacations at their house. You ran through the wheat fields and got told off for ruining the crops. You climbed trees and maybe broke your first bone by falling off. You also have an unfortunate memory of a chicken running around without its head or pig screams coming from the pigpen. You might have become a vegetarian because of that.
The tradition is called “Śmigus Dyngus”, and initially it was boys who would pour water on girls and vice-versa, but now it’s all families that continue the tradition. This is when water guns come into serious use. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, you’re going to get wet.
You grew up in a minuscule apartment in a block building. The whole apartment was around 40m2 and not larger that 60m2. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s blocks were built across all Poland to accommodate the influx of population migrating to cities. The housing was designed to fulfill only the basic living needs and so the living room was also your parent’s bedroom and you shared a room with your siblings. The kitchen and bathroom were so small that you could barely turn around. The apartment also included a tiny balcony, about a square meter or two of surface, which your mother used for hanging the laundry out and you for playing “string telephone” with your neighbor friends.
Arriving at your parents place you find the fridge stuffed with kopytka, pierogi, bigos and gołąbki and your mum tells you “Well, I wasn’t sure what you would like to eat”. There is ciasto for you for dessert, too, whether it’s Saturday or not.
Your car broke down – call your dad. The washing machine made a noise – he’ll ask you what kind of a noise it is, how frequent and based on that will tell you what the problem is. Your faucet is dripping? He’ll explain step by step how to clean it out or tighten the seals. When it comes to technology, though, he can barely make calls on a mobile phone (no smartphone please!), turn on a laptop, open a browser or type.
You were super independent as a child. You played outside your block with friends and your parents only called you home when it was time for dinner (they would lean out from the window and call your name, no mobile phones back then!). You helped with cooking and by the time you were 12 you could cook a full meal by yourself and bake a ciasto. Around that age, you also started picking up your younger siblings from kindergarten, walk them home and take care of them until your parents arrived from work.
The ingredients are sauerkraut, wild mushrooms, beetroot, fish and poppy seeds. Historically, not much variety of sustenance used to be available in winter months, and so the Polish needed to invent festive food with what they had at hand. In addition, Polish Christmas dinner is eaten on the 24th, symbolically awaiting Jesus’s birth and is meatless. What’s created of the 5 main ingredients are: a creamy wild-mushroom soup for starters, a clove-infused clear barszcz or beatroot soup, pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and wild mushrooms, łazanki (noodles with more sauerkraut!), and a variations of fish dishes (with carrot and onion cold topping, in cream, fried). For dessert, there is makowiec (poppy seed cake) and kutia (poppy seeds mixed with wheat, dried fruit, honey and nuts). Surprisingly, there are no potato-based dishes, but given that we eat them on every other day of the year, that’s okay.
A typical wedding lasts for two days. The church ceremony is on a Saturday and the party starts right after that. Bottles and bottles of vodka are constantly brought to tables and drunk in shots. The food is served all evening- and night-long. The dancing and the food slow down the alcohol effect and so everyone seems to be cheerfully tipsy and silly, not downright drunk. The second day of the wedding is called poprawiny and it involves more of the same: food, drinks and dancing.
Let’s be honest, here, though. You prefer to celebrate you birthday.
Name choices are very limited in Poland and so, first names are very repetitive amongst the population. Every other girl seems to be called Kasia, Basia, Ania and Magda and boys are Paweł, Łukasz, Marcin and Tomek. And if an ‘unusual’ name emerges like Maja or Nikola, it quickly catches on and again, many are named with it.
In Polish, there is a word for yes – “tak” — and no — “nie.” But you use “no” when you agree with what someone is saying. The word sounds negative to a foreign ear. “Do you want some tea?” “No”. “Do you like this TV show?” “No.” Or you use it to show that you are listening attentively. Your whole phone conversation might seem like you are disagreeing with someone, but you’re really not: “Halo? No. No. No. Aha. No. No pa.”
You got off a phone with your parents and your foreigner friends ask: “What happened, did you just fall out with your parents?” “No, I just told them about my week”. There is something about our tone of voice or the way we use our language that sounds harsh.
You are direct with your friends and family. If you’re at your friend’s house and are hungry, you ask them what they have to eat. You only heard about the need to say things gently to people (or not say them at all) when you started hanging out with foreigners.
Tea is just as popular a drink in Poland as it is in England (no exaggeration there!) We don’t drink it with milk, though – just plain tea with sugar or tea with a round slice of lemon in it.
A lot. You complain about the long winter. When the snow starts melting you complain about the mud. And when eventually the summer comes, it is too hot! You complain about the politicians (even though you haven’t actually voted in years) and prices (even though you can afford to live comfortably and you actually own your apartment and a car and live without mortgages).
A complaint is often a conversation-starter. It’s easier to make friends when you can both moan about something together. Then you move on to joyful topics.