Chief editors — Eva Květoňová and Damian Satława
Cover and pictures — Katarzyna Satława, Damian Satława
before you start reading this book, I would like to point out two things:
Please be aware that we are an extremely polarized nation. If I put a negation “not” in every sentence, this book will still be credible for half of us. And this is wonderful.
I considered giving a draft to some native speaker to check but finally I changed my mind. I read some pieces of early Afro-American literature. It was unique mainly because of the language that was used there. And I appreciate authenticity more than hyper-correctness.
Because it still is, and probably always will be, the most popular alcoholic beverage in our country. Craft beers and foreign wines have become fashionable in the recent years but there is no other way to celebrate a wedding, childbirth, buying a property or other milestones in life than with vodka.
Onion is a widespread vegetable. Many Polish dishes simply cannot do without an onion. Although tasty and popular, the same poor onion has a pejorative idiomatic meaning. If you call someone cebula (pol. onion) that means this person is a dim-witted villager, xenophobic and superstitious.
However, it is understood that way among people of my generation. Grandmas know only the literal meaning of cebula.
Life goes on
Below I described some curious situations I have witnessed, heard of or took part in.
Pub in Leeds, UK. A newly met Polish woman asks me:
— How long are you in the UK?
— 4 days — I say.
— Have you already found anything? — she asks.
— Found what? — I ask.
— A job! Have you found a job? — she explains.
— I’m not here to look for a job. — I reply.
— So, what are you doing here? — she asks confused.
— I’m here on a holiday. — I answer.
— Ha ha, you’re so funny. I like you. — says the woman.
An acquaintance went on a business trip to Germany. On her first day at the office everyone ordered a pizza during the lunch break. She noticed that almost all people ate one-third or half of it and throw the rest into a rubbish bin. The second day she asked a woman sitting next to her desk: May we buy one pizza together and share the costs so that we don’t have to throw the food away?
Her German colleague was utterly surprised. She could not understand the reason for doing so.
Polish wedding. Somewhere in central Poland. The family sits at the table. One young man boasts:
— After I relocated to Warsaw and started a job there I can afford all I want. I bought this, I have that, bla, bla…
All the men sitting in the closest surroundings are listening to him with attention. Suddenly his cousin asks:
— So how much do you earn per month?
— Oh, quite a lot. 4500 złoty. — answers “the successful one”.
— 4500 złoty is what I fuck out every Friday night. — says the cousin.
Someone starts to laugh, then someone else joins. After a couple of seconds all the men at the table laugh out loud. The guy who moved to Warsaw feels humiliated. He stands up, leaves the table and goes out to smoke a cigarette.
— I’m a true Pole. I hate everyone. — said a relative of mine.
— Where have you been on holiday?
— In Thailand.
— How much is an onion in Thailand?
Warsaw, bus stop. I am waiting for a bus to the city center with my friend who stems from Warsaw. We spotted a bus full of people coming from some town in Eastern Poland.
— Cheap workforce has arrived.- said my friend.
— How could you? -I scolded him.
— I’m just telling the truth. — he replied.
Novi Pazar, Southern Serbia, year 2018.
We parked our car at the main street. An elderly man was sitting in front of kafana (Balkan café). He approached us and asked: “Poland? Have you got some jeans for sale?”
A Polish joke:
— Granny, I have to tell you something.-
— Yes, my dear? —
— I’m gay.-
— Does it mean you don’t eat meat? —
— No, it means that I sleep with men.-
— Oh, that’s good. Because it’s important to eat a lot of meat.-
Crete, Greece. Talking with the locals. Greek woman asks: What do you do when the temperature in winter goes below zero? Do you go to work? Are schools, shops and offices opened? Do you allow kids to go out of the house? How about buses, trains? Do they operate during the winter?
Chapeltown quarter, Leeds, UK.
Two young Polish guys are approaching a car parked in front of a club. Two Brits are sitting inside the car.
Poles ask: Hi, don’t you want to fight us? No knives, just bare hands. Come on guys, would you?
Lads in the car say nothing. They start the engine and drive away. Two Polish guys are disappointed. They just wanted to have some fun but they were ignored.
Norway? No one speaks English there. There are mostly small villages and villagers don’t speak any foreign language — says a friend of mine who has never been to any Scandinavian country.
We are going on a holiday. My mom already sits in a car.
Bring the maps! We are not going anywhere without maps! — she yells.
So I brought the maps and got in the car. After several hours she wants me to open the map and find a way to Istria that steers clear of Slovenia (they had expensive tolls at that time). I open the map, look at it and say: Mom, that map is from 1990, there is neither Slovenia nor Croatia marked on it.
My mom thinks for a while and announces: Only idiots travel with maps!
Bauhaus supermarket, somewhere in Czech Republic.
The shop assistant says: If you’re looking for bulbs, choose these. Those are from Poland, so, you know, I wouldn’t recommend them.
He is not aware where I am from, he keeps on talking but I do not listen anymore. I feel pain in my chest. The man has just broken my heart. Once he goes back to his work, I take 5 Polish bulbs (I needed just one) and triumphantly proceed to a cash desk.
He was drunk like… like a true Catholic. — says my uncle relating to his friend.
City Beach, Novi Sad, Serbia.
I am on a holiday with my Polish friends. Monika realized that there are many elderly people there. They are playing cards, chatting, sipping beer and enjoying their time. How sweet — she commented.
In Poland elderly people rarely go to the pool or a lake or aqua parks and they avoid places where people are supposed to be dressed in swimming costumes only. For some reason they feel they do not belong there and it is really difficult to convince them that they are wrong. I encouraged my grandma a few times to go to the pool with me. Ehhh, no way — is her only answer. My second grandma? I have never seen her is a swimming costume my whole life. People, why???
A village in north-eastern Poland. Two middle-aged women stand in front of a well and gossip:
— He goes to her house every night and he sleeps with her, with this divorcee. And you know, I saw him last Sunday in the church receiving the Holy Communion!
How dare he? — replies the second woman with utmost disgust.
We went to the Tatra Mountains with my friends. One of them asks me: Is there any valley through Tatras that reaches Slovakia?
I dunno. Probably not. — I say.
Good. Otherwise Slovaks could invade us. — says my friend.
What? Ridiculous! Why should they? — I ask amused.
How many Slovaks are there? — he replies with a question.
Hmmm, about 5 million. — I say.
Imagine there are 50 million Slovaks, huh? You would not laugh then!
In a train between Prague and Brno.
— You speak Czech really well. — a man compliments me.
— Thank you. It is because I live here. — I reply.
— Is it somewhat better in here? — he asks.
— The same. Just people are less nervous. —
— Do you travel abroad?
— No, the devil lives abroad.
— Your teeth went yellow. Look at your belly. It is far too big. Do something with yourself! — this is what you might hear while meeting grandma after few months.
A story my friend told me.
My grandad was a soldier. He was in England during the Second World War. Once he was walking down the street in some English town. A beautiful young English woman was calling him to come to her flat. He refused. He had a wife and a little child. He regrets it till today!
Bohoniki, north-eastern Poland. The guide in a Tatar mosque recounts: There are catholics, Tatar muslims and eastern Orthodox people living in our village. There have never been any conflicts between us. The only “problem” might be the fact that because of 3 different religions we have so many occasions to celebrate that we barely have time to work.
Wzdół Rządowy, Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, Eastern Poland.
— Grandpa! Do you want wine or vodka?
Another Polish joke:
A woman yells at her husband:
— You drink beer every day! Have you ever counted how much do you spend for beer? Were it not for beer, you could have bought a yacht so far!
The man replies:
— And you? Do you drink beer?
— Me? No!
— So, where’s your yacht???
I invited a pair of my acquaintances from Finland to come for a dinner. They were supposed to come on Sunday afternoon. Sunday morning I was about to start cooking. I wanted everything to be ready before they ring the doorbell. Suddenly I received a message that they will not come because they do not feel like socialising today and they prefer to sit at home. It was new to me. I did not know what to think about it. They do not like me anymore? What have I done? What went wrong? I was totally puzzled by their message. Occasionally it also happens to me that I were supposed to visit somebody or go somewhere but the very day I am supposed to do it, I was not willing to meet any people. But I have never had the courage to tell it straightforward. If you are invited you simply go. No matter what. Or… invent some serious excuse (grandma is ill, the cat has died, the car broke down, etc.) It took me some time to understand that it was not a rejection. We do not want to socialize today literally means we do not want to socialize today. Nothing more, nothing less.
Meeting with colleagues after work.
Me, two Polish guys and two French girls are sitting at one table. Guys start talking about the II World War. Girls are sipping their wine and pretending to be interested in the conversation. After one hour girls are deadly bored, they say something about home duties and leave. Guys did not even realize that their female colleagues had gone home. They were in the middle of a heated debate concerning the Warsaw Uprising.
My friend who lives in Nottingham had to move to another part of the city after Poles in the neighbourhood realized that she speaks English fluently. They were bothering her every day and night. “Can you go with me to the dentist?”, “Can you go with me to job office?” “Can you explain me how to apply for this or that?’ These were exemplary requests she heard through the intercom.
“Poverty disgusts me!” (pol. “Brzydzę się biedą”) — it is a beloved phrase used by a friend of mine. He shouts it any time he is drunk. No one has got any idea what the reason for doing so is.
We were travelling across England during our holiday. We chose a road that goes by Stonehenge because we wanted to see a world class monument so much. But once we approached Stonehenge, we realized that there was a pig farm on the other side of the street. Hundreds of pigs were either toddling around or snoozing in front of low wooden huts built specially for them. The view of resting piggies was so cute and soothing that we took more pictures of them than of the most famous pile of stones in the world.
Year 2003. Going for a holiday to England we picked our friend from a train station in Gliwice, Poland. He got into our car and announced: “I’ll buy myself a pair of Ray-Ban glasses. They’re insanely expensive here but I hope to find them for a bargain price in the UK.”
Before we reached Belgium our friend got such a hard eye infection that he could barely see. We took him to the doctor in Milton Keynes. The optician prescribed a medicine and a pair of corrective glasses (he was wearing lenses before). The doctor’s appointment, the medicine and a new pair of glasses cost 175 pounds. He had to say goodbye to Ray-Bans…
Regardless of Western culture influence, there is still a division into male and female role in the society in Poland. I find it quite convenient. At least you know what to expect and what is expected from you.
A woman should have kids, raise them and take proper care of the household. The man is responsible for bringing money home and defending his family. Most Polish men take the role of breadwinner and defender very, very seriously. Jobless adult man is a synonym of failure.
Obviously not everyone follows these traditional roles. Sometimes it is a matter of choice, sometimes not. There are many adults who lead a life of a single. Many of my friends have no family or their other half. They focus on their professional career making their parents suffer from insomnia.
Most of our men are macho, I think. Lumberjack style is in fashion in here since the migration of Slavs from Asia. Our men are tough. They fight if necessary. If not necessary, they fight as well.
You will not find a sensitive dandy here unless he is a fashion designer.
If you, being a woman, want to spend a romantic weekend in Paris — take your female friend with you because your man would consider this idea as … stupid.
Do you dream of going on a date to an elegant restaurant? You may suggest it to your man but something will tell him that kebab at the railway station or beer in a pub will be much better and cheaper. And what is more, he will not have to put elegant clothes on. He does not want to feel as if he is still at work in his office. Besides, nothing makes a Polish guy more annoyed than paying a fortune and leaving a restaurant still hungry.
Nonetheless, from time to time, he will surprise you with a tasty supper made by himself. You may expect wine and candles on the table.
If you want him to join dance course with you, he will probably refuse. He hates salsa, he hates dancing. But in spite of this, the next day he will tell you that he will attend dance classes with you. Why? To prevent you from dancing with other men. It is a beautiful sign of love and care.
Polish guys call themselves names when they meet together, drink and have a good time. That is a typical scene when friends sit at the table playing cards or board games and call one another “gay” or “commie”. It is not an insult. It is a sign of trust and friendship. It proves that they like one another. If you are a foreigner having a chat with your Polish buddies and you hear that you are a pervert or commie pig — that is a very good sign. It is a hidden message: “You are one of us.”
In a Xenophobe’s Guide to the Poles written by Ewa Lipniacka I read that Poland is the perfect country for cantankerous old people. Yes, indeed. It is because yelling and going to the church is the only entertainment they can afford. There are not ANY activities for senior citizens in the vast majority of towns and villages. In big cities they may find something for themselves but even there the choice is quite limited compared to other countries.
If they are living together with their children they have the opportunity to talk to someone or play with grandchildren. But if the rest of the family lives far away, grandmas and grandpas usually feel sad and lonely.
They wait for a visit or, the sign of our times, conversation through Skype. Not visiting and not keeping in touch with parents is widely perceived as bad behavior. We feel a strong obligation to care about our elders. If parents are not able to care about themselves any more, children are expected to help. This help means either employing a nurse or, more often, taking parents to their own house and assist in everyday activities. Sending parents to a nursing home is not really accepted. It is a cultural taboo I would say. Not many people do that, and if they do, they have to face strong criticism from relatives and from the society. It is perceived as being ungrateful and degenerate. One of our leading actors publicly admitted that he placed his mom into a home for elderly. You do not have to be a genius to guess what kind of comments he received on his social media accounts.
My acquaintances from Western or Northern Europe always surprise me when they claim that the last time they saw their parents or siblings was a couple of years ago.
I am going to continue my story about the elderly in Poland in the chapter Communism.
My Romanian friend says that in her opinion Polish women are lovely but a bit malicious. We are said to have acrimonious, sarcastic sense of humor. We laugh at people behind their back, criticize. Generally we, women, tend to compete with one another. Who is more successful, who is cleverer, who looks better, cooks better, who is a better wife or mother. I really dislike it. I am trying to support other women. I could not stand the fact that someone may feel worse or less valuable because of me. God forbid! But still my Romanian friend says that I am a bit malicious. Oh, maybe sometimes. But only among people whom I know very well and I am sure they will not take it personally.
Here, in Poland, if you are overweight, red-haired, ugly or dishevelled, you will quickly become a subject of jokes at school. Many women have complexes because of it. They do not feel attractive even if they look absolutely stunning. Some of my friends are ashamed of going to a public swimming pool only because they have some extra kilos. It is not a joke, unfortunately. We feel some kind of pressure to look good, impeccable. On the other hand, even if you are a successful, perfect-looking woman, you still will not escape criticism. Our fitness celebrities have to face comments and insults about their alleged stupidity, laziness or lack of professionalism in social media. Poor women. I am so glad I am not famous…
Surely, there are things I like about Polish women. We are brave. We do not hesitate to pack our stuff and go to work to foreign country, even if we do not know the language that is spoken there. We are devoted to things we do. If we are mothers, we are mothers for 200%. We sacrifice our whole life to the kids. If we have no kids, we are devoted to our jobs. If deadlines are chasing us, we neither sleep nor eat. We work hard in order not to disappoint anyone. And we are extremely patient. We simply have to. We hear either criticism or advices we did not ask for from our husband, kids, boss, mom, grandma, aunties, mother-in-law, neighbors, teachers, clients, etc.
Once we have a family, we try to keep it together no matter what. Taking all European countries into consideration, we belong to these in which the divorce rate is the lowest one.
How is it to be a mother in Poland?
I found an interesting article entitled Mother Pole written by Małgorzata Sikorska inside a voluminous publication “Family and social change in socialist and post-socialist societies”. Let me just summarize it briefly.
The term Mother Pole was used to describe an ideal mother; the one who sacrifices herself and cares properly about the children, the husband and the house. Being a mother was the most important role of a woman. Mother Pole had many (very often too many) duties so that she could never find the time for herself. Bringing up numerous kids very often without any help from the father’s side — this is what we associate with Mother Pole. So, implicitly, a woman following that model was usually tired, frustrated and unattractive. Some moms nowadays call themselves Mother Pole but with a bit ironic tone. That was all what was expected from a mother in the past. According to Sikorska, recently Mother Pole has changed into Supermother, that means a woman who not only manages everything (the kids and the home) but also is able to find time for herself and is professionally successful. I agree with that. I have similar observations and experience. Previous generations had it more tough, I think. Most women could not fully enjoy motherhood because of overwhelming amount of duties and lack of all the amenities (ie. disposable diapers) we have today. Now motherhood is still a challenge but not to such an extent as it used to be. Starting from giving birth (painkillers) there are plenty of opportunities, babysitters, mum’s clubs, children’s playrooms, hotels for family+kids. Moms on maternity leave can educate themselves thanks to online courses or learn a foreign language using Skype. They can find any piece of advice they seek on blogs or forums dedicated to maternity. Also the attitude of the partner has changed. You can expect some help from him. The role of a man in the family has changed from breadwinner into breadwinner and father. Moms can really enjoy life, if they have enough money. They can travel with the baby, attend a gym where a qualified babysitter takes care of our offsprings or spend a weekend in wellness hotel intended for couples with kids where no one would look askance at you or your kids when they fight at a restaurant table.
There is a term instamatki (instamoms), used to describe women who post pictures with their baby, both smiling, nicely dressed and looking perfect. The aim of it is to share the message with the world — I am a mother, I am happy, beautiful, self-fulfilled and all of this effortlessly, of course.
So, generally nowadays being a mother in Poland is a joyful and exploratory experience, as long as you have a supportive partner by your side and enough money to cover your spendings. If not, it is a Way of the Cross.
The only things that I dislike about being a mother in Poland are these recurrent questions “When are you coming back to work?” both from family and friends. It does not matter if the baby is several weeks or months old. It is beyond my comprehension that there is some pointless pressure on a woman to be full-time employed and earn money while having a small baby. Communism (with its model of a mother working full-time) ended long time ago but it will take years (or centuries) until people change their mentality. I think that mother’s role is not really recognized and respected. Quite often I read or hear that “someone is sitting at home doing nothing”. It is not just narrow-mindedness but also an ultimate example of impoliteness esp. if you say it in a presence of a mother who does not employ either a babysitter or a cleaning lady to help her.
Our hospitality is proverbial. Guests are always welcome; they are a blessing. They kill everyday routine, bring news, rumours and sometimes even alcohol. Even if you were not invited beforehand, you may always knock at our door, we will welcome you if we are at home. But if you want to experience true Polish hospitality let us know at least one day in advance so that we could prepare everything. Prepare means clean the house, gather dirty pants and socks from the floor and, most of all, cook something delicious.
For a traditional Polish housewife preparing a nice meal or several meals is a matter of honor. A guest should not leave our home hungry or sober. When guests eat with appetite and praise us, we shine! We feel like a star, a mythical goddess, a fairy doing miracles. It is our chance to present our skills in front of others. So do not forget to say something nice to your Polish host after tasting the food. Then we feel euphoric. We really wait for it.
Now, I have to add that this is what the traditional hospitality looks like. This is how it should be. Nevertheless there are people who do not care that much about their guests. They offer just biscuits and coffee. They call it modern or practical approach. I call it laziness.
Historical sources are not sufficient to state vodka’s country of origin. We do not know in what land it was distilled for the first time. The only thing that is known for sure is that it has been produced in Poland since Middle Ages. Both Poles and Russians claim that vodka is their invention.
Apart from vodka we sometimes use other synonyms to name this alcoholic beverage. They are as follows: wóda, gorzałka, woda ognista, okowita, czysta, siwucha, berbelucha, starka, etc.
The most popular brands of Polish vodka are Wyborowa, Żubrówka, Luksusowa, Soplica, Absolwent, Belvedere, Chopin, Żołądkowa Gorzka, Krakus, Sobieski, Goldwasser or Pan Tadeusz.
There is a tradition to bury a barrel of vodka (called starka) in the ground after a son is born. It is supposed to be digged up at the time he is getting married.
Another custom says that after the wedding ceremony one bottle of vodka should be set aside. It waits till the day the first child of the married couple is baptized.
The map of vodka belt countries. There is the highest consumption of vodka.
Source: wikipedia, public domain.