Photo: Mike JL
1. Carp swimming in your bathtub.
Your dad shopped for carp days in advance before Christmas, trying to avoid crowds in shops and make sure to get a big healthy fish. You loved playing with your new pet who had to live in the tub until Christmas and you would spend hours skimming your fingers on the water surface for carp to chase.
Before bathing, you would have to catch the fish in a bucket, drain the tub, wash it, take a bath, wash the tub again, fill with water and release the carp back into it. On Christmas Eve’s morning, you heard splattering and then a heavy chop. Next thing you knew, fried bells of fish meat were served on your Christmas dinner plate.
2. Whining over milk soup.
Your Polish mom always insisted on serving you hot milk, whether in a glass, over cereal, or worst of all, made into soup with fusilli pasta. You didn’t mind the heated milk as much as you hated the skin forming on the surface. You pushed the film of fat to the edge of your plate, but it often stuck to your spoon and you tasted its mucousy texture anyways. Thinking about this gives you shivers to this day.
3. The hateful eyes of the cloakroom lady at school.
Uniforms weren’t and are still not required in the majority of Polish schools, but you needed to change your shoes for clean ones to walk around in the primary school building. You left you regular shoes in the cloakroom guarded by the cloakroom lady, who spotted anybody who dared not change his or her shoes. Tears still well up in your eyes thinking back about how she yelled at you that one day you forgot your clean shoes at home.
4. Setting a rag doll on fire and throwing it into the river.
Every March 21st, you made a doll out of hay, scrapes of fabric and colored paper in class. Then, together with your teacher and classmates you went to the nearest river in the park where you recited a farewell poem dedicated to Marzanna, the doll representing winter. Your teacher set the doll on fire and threw it into the river while you and other kids cheered. This is how you would expel winter and welcome spring. The tradition is now disappearing due to obvious environmental concerns, but you hold the memory dearly, as it filled you with the expectance of warmer weather.
5. Hoping schools would close in winter.
When you were in third grade, temperatures dropped below -20 Celsius degrees one winter and flu epidemics roamed in your city. As a result, all schools closed for two weeks. Every following winter, you hoped that it would happen again so that you could use the additional winter break weeks to stay at home and watch Cartoon Network all day long.
6. Eating dozens of donuts in one day on Fat Thursday.
The name practically obliged you to eat as many spongy dough balls filled with sour cherry or strawberry jam as possible on that day. Your mum additionally made heaps of faworki the night before and you devoured on the sweet crunchy fritter when donuts ran out. Your parents didn’t worry at all about you being hyper on all the sugar.
7. Celebrating spring by missing school.
In secondary school, instead of drowning a doll in the river, you celebrated the first day of spring by escaping from school. Your whole class agreed that none of you would show up for lessons on March 21st. Instead, you went to chill in the park altogether and enjoyed the first warmer beams of sun. Most of your teachers were aware of and accepted this tradition, but some still got mad and tested the whole class on the following day.
8. Weekends in the countryside.
Every few weekends you visited your grandparents or uncles in the countryside and it was a time of complete freedom. You climbed countless trees and ate apples and cherries straight from the branch. You biked to the forest edge and searched for the best spots for poziomki (wild mini strawberries), and once you found them, you cleared all the bushes of the delicious tiny fruit. You played “police and thieves” on bikes with your cousins and neighbors’ kids, chasing each other on the dirt roads in between immense fields of wheat and barley.
When the family made a fire outside at night, you stuck sausages on the end of a long stick and grilled them over the fire until crunchy on the outside and soft inside. You inserted the sausage in between two slices of sourdough wheat bread and devoured the thing in huge bites.
9. Looking for amber at the seaside.
When you happened to be at the Baltic Sea during summer vacation, you spent hours searching for the precious orange stone that the sea abounds in. The souvenir stands along the promenade sold heavy strings of the stone, some of them containing a fly or a small spider. You were totally possessed by the idea of encountering a piece like this. All you ever managed to find was sea glass.
10. Playing outside with no adult supervision.
Growing up in post-communist utopian cities gave you the advantage of lots of green spaces and playgrounds in front of each apartment block. Together with other kids from the neighborhood, you spent hours after school, building “bases” in the bushes, trying front and backflips on trzepak (carpet-beating rack), doing cartwheels on the grass and rolling down the hills, playing klasy and treasure hunt or jumping rope all-afternoon-long.
11. Escaping from church.
Your family went to church together every Sunday morning. When you were in sixth grade, your parents started letting you go to church with your friends. You inevitably used this occasion to evade service, because the mass bored you to death at that age. You met your friends on the block’s corner, started walking towards the church, but never actually arrived to the mass. You found a great hiding spot in some park on the way and just sat and chatted for an hour and one day you even tried your first cigarette. You knew that your parents would question you about the sermon when you got back and you always prepared the perfect answers.