Hangin’ With Our Poles

About a year ago I wanted to learn a lot more about a technology I was interested in, so I posted a project on guru.com offering to pay someone to mentor me (reading books and following tutorials only gets you so far). One of the responses was from a guy in Poland who offered to collaborate with me for free; the result is actually the current edition of this blog site. That mentoring project grew into a full-fledged friendship and I’ve found other projects (the paying variety) for him1.

So last year when we decided we’d concentrate on Central Europe for this 7-month travel stint, there was little doubt that we’d swing through Poland to visit with Marek. We coordinated dates and made plans to go out of our way to travel to the southeast countryside of Poland where Marek and his family live. He insisted that we stay that night, that he lived with his in-laws and they had a large house with plenty of room. He promised us his mother-in-law would cook a proper, traditional Polish meal for us. We protested no more. Ok, count us in.

From Krakow we took a bus to the town of Rzeszow. If you got the pronunciation for this town correct the first time, I’d be impressed (it’s pronounced ZHESH-oof). From there we rented a car (no small feat itself, as English is not as common as in the rest of Europe and it was not communicated to us in our reservation that we had to call for our car upon arrival) and were plunging deeper into the countryside, close to the Ukraine border. We had told Marek we’d stop on the way for lunch, so we found a pizza place next to a gas station that served surprisingly good pizza.

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Marek, Iwona, and beautiful baby Milena

We met Marek and his family at the castle in Krasickich (best guess? crash-ITCH-kitch; picture at top of this blog). Marek, Iwona (ee-VON-uh), and baby Milena (mee-LAY-nuh) are a picture-perfect young family. Iwona didn’t speak much English (though it seemed she understood more than she spoke), and the baby only speaks baby at this point, so Marek had the task of translation. We walked around the park at the castle (Zamek Krasickich, which is worth going out of the way to see should you be in Southeast Poland or in nearby Lviv, Ukraine, by the way) and got to know them.

After a while, Marek announced that Iwona and her mother had prepared lunch and dinner for us—traditional Polish cooking—and that we should go to the house. Lunch and dinner? We thought it might be a language thing, but we protested that we had already eaten lunch. No matter, she had already cooked it.

Their house was nearby. It was a good-sized home (even by American standards) of three levels in a rural area of rolling hills and small farms and gardens. It reminded me of many places I’ve been in the Southeastern US, the kind of place where all the neighbors know each other, they all have sizable gardens, and they all share what they grow with one another. Marek and family live on the top floor, Iwona’s parents live on the bottom floor. The middle floor is the main living area, and that’s where we were greeted.

To say we were welcomed as visiting dignitaries is an understatement. I think there might have actually been a red carpet, but I didn’t notice it as I was bear-hugged by Marek’s delightful in-laws, Adam and Ella. The similarities to the Southeast US extend also to the hospitality of the Poles. It was truly as if we were family.

We were ushered to their living room, which any American would have found familiar except that it was also their dining room (imagine a large edition of your living room, with couch and television, with dining room table in the middle). We were seated. Marek introduced us. We learned that Adam is a retired forester and that Ella still works as a nurse. Both are only a few years older than we are.

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L to R: Chuck, Lori, Adam, Ella, Marek

Just a few minutes later Ella and Iwona went to the kitchen and began bringing out food. We started with a noodle soup in broth, along with some of that fantastic Polish brown bread we had already become familiar with. They brought us amazing homemade pickles and local sausage and cheese and schnitzel. Even though we had eaten pizza just a couple of hours earlier, it was all too good to refuse. And then there were sweets. Homemade sweets. My calorie-counting app was going to freak out.

During and after lunch was conversation. Adam and Ella don’t speak English, so Marek translated for us. Speaking through a translator was surprisingly easy to get the hang of, and it was equally surprising how quickly we started to pick up on what they were saying in Polish. They were impressed that we could properly pronounce the names of the cities we had visited and with what little bit of Polish we knew. Adam assured us that, should we spend a few more weeks in Poland, we’d be fluent. I’m not so sure.

Conversation began with the typical topics: work, jobs, travel, weather. They showed off their garden. We talked about where we had visited recently. They suggested places in Poland we should visit. Then it turned to the “forbidden” topics: politics and religion. In Poland the big political topics are a scandal involving Lech Walesa…and the American Presidential race. On this latter topic, I’ll only point out that all the world’s eyes are on America and it’s interesting (often sad) what they’re seeing. But perhaps the highlight of the conversation was our education into the Polish cultural phenomenon of disco polo. For the sadly uninformed, disco polo is Polish folk disco. It’s hard to explain, so Adam found some on TV to demonstrate to us. I still can’t explain it, so I won’t try. Just think: disco, folk music, Polish.

I should pause here to point out that when Marek insisted we come stay with them, I did what every polite Southerner does: I started planning on gifts to bring our host. Wine is always a good choice, but we had also learned that vodka is the drink-of-choice for Poles. So before we left Krakow, I Googled up an article on the top brands of Polish vodka and visited a liquor store (sidenote: an “Alkohole” store in Poland is a liquor store, not just a nifty little English pun).

At this point in our visit we broke out our gifts of wine and vodka. We briefly talked about the brands of Polish vodka and why I selected this one (because of its clarity and purity as a genuine traditional potato vodka). Then, to our amazement, they broke out gifts for us. For the guests to receive gifts from the hosts isn’t necessarily unheard of for Southerners, but it surprised us. It was wonderfully gracious of them. They showered us with a jar of local Polish honey (it’s delicious, by the way), some cosmetics for Lori (high quality stuff from the company Iwona works for), a book on one Polish Home Army officer’s experience in Auschwitz (an absolutely fascinating story which I tore through in a couple of days), and—most heartwarmingly—gifts for our soon-to-arrive grandson (a musical plush mobile and a couple of really cute outfits).

It might actually be possible that Polish hospitality exceeds that of the Deep South.

At this time it was appropriate to break out the vodka. But Adam insisted we start with his bottle. Notice my words: start with his bottle. We learned the Polish vodka ritual, namely a straight up shot of vodka with a cheer and a shot of juice or soda as a chaser. The Polish cheer is a hardy “nah-STROH-vuh!” After a few toasts, they started bringing more food. Dinner was on.

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Good conversation with great friends!

We never left the table, the center of their home. And for good reason: after a few shots I don’t think any of us would have gotten very far. The men finished Adam’s bottle and moved on to the one we had brought. The ladies drank wine, one bottle and then another. As the evening wore on, we laughed with our new, great friends, learned to love disco polo, laughed some more, and noted that Marek’s translations were getting slower and funnier. But that didn’t matter.

Our weekend, especially that evening, will not only be a highlight of this visit to Europe, it will be a highlight in our lives. When we started this fulltime nomad thing a couple of years ago, we learned quickly that it’s not as much about the castles and cathedrals and museums and galleries as it is about the people we meet. In people-connecting travel terms, our visit with Marek’s family was like visiting the Eiffel Tower, or seeing the Grand Canyon, for the first time. I just don’t think it can get any better than sitting around the dining room table with wonderful people.

The next morning, after a splendid breakfast, Marek invited us to mass at the cathedral in nearby Przemyśl (you’ll never get this one; it’s ZHEM-ish). After mass, there was a youth concert. And after that, we enjoyed exploring the town with Marek, Iwona, and Milena, including a wonderful little bell and pipe museum in the town’s tower (this city is known for its bell forgery and for making smoking pipes) before going home for one last meal with Adam and Ella.

Then we had to embrace and say goodbye and travel on. One day, we hope to return their graciousness and host them in the USA. The sight they most want to see? The Grand Canyon.

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Top: tower view of Przemyśl. Middle: very cool pipe. Bottom: the whole gang (sorry I cut Ella off, but the baby is so precious in this picture!)


1 – I’d love to find more projects for Marek and his team; if you need a content-driven (Drupal, to be precise) website developed, please get in touch.

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