Thursday, 24 September 2009

Impressions from Modern Day Poland

This might seem a strange title for a blog, but what do we know Poland from in the rest of Europe or the world? We don’t know Poland that well. We picture it as a very cold place like Russia, we know that they drink an awful lot (like the Russians) and for the rest? Ah, yes, it’s the place where all those great and reliable plumbers come from… but this is far from the truth.

We started our trip because we are looking for the origins of my husband’s family. So we wrote randomly to a few families and we were invited to come and stay (as Slavs naturally do). We went to a first family in Rypin where we – were given the daughter’s bedroom to sleep in. The daughter moved to the lake house where she organised a party with friends for us. We only stayed there for three days because after that we had an appointment with another family with my husband’s name. Nonetheless, we had a nice evening drinking (or at least they had, finishing 2 bottles of Vodka) and a nice barbecue in their perfect little house by the lake (absolutely breathtaking).

Then we moved, as I said, towards a family more to the east of Poland. It is interesting to note that, as we were on the bus, one could see the vegetation and natural environment changing. From a country looking like Germany, France or Belgium (ok, only a little bigger then) with fields of harvested crops stretching as far as the eye could see, we moved to an area with a lot of woodland and patches of field in between. My husband compared it to Russia. I am not sure how the people there would take it, but I can see his point. In fact, from the place we were going, the old border between Prussia and Russia was not even 10km away. So, in a certain sense the landscape foretold what country you were coming to then. Nowadays one still has to sit a few hours on the train to reach the border with Belarus.

But, people were not so much different from the family in Rypin. The stay was an amazing experience. We went a day early because there was no bus on the day we wanted and we stayed in a hotel. In the morning, whilst we were having breakfast, a person came from the reception and told us there was someone on the telephone for us, that she was sorry for giving out our name against hotel regulations, but that the man in question had been so nice that she had not dared to refuse. In fact, this man who turned up was our host who had called the other family (no family of his, never seen them either) to get informed about when we would arrive. That in itself was particularly resourceful. This man’s family was amazingly welcoming. The amount of trouble particularly the lady of the house went through for us we could never imagine in England, France or Belgium. Belgians like eating (if there is no good food, there is no good party or holiday), but this just topped the wildest dreams even of a Burgundian Belgian. There was for dinner: potatoes, leg of pork, pork and pineapple, stuffed duck, carrots, barszcz (beetroot soup) and this for only 6 people. During the afternoon there was ice cream, cakes and various drinks, not to forget fruit, and for supper there was bread with eel, three kinds of vegetable salad (self-made!), and various kinds of meat and cheese, with tea and coffee. This also for only 6 people. I had been ill the week before and I was not hungry, and they were concerned, probably that I did not like their food. The lady of the house would have gone to any length to please me, asking me if I liked ice cream better, or soup or whatever she could think of. For the next few days however, I recovered a little (they were still amazed at what little morsels of food I lived on). Food did not diminish and every day was a kind of feast. I think this was the fastest recovery in my history of illness. After one week, my tummy (before as flat as a pancake because of the lack of food) was back. My neighbours would have sworn nothing had been wrong with me.

The last meal with that family was the family’s son’s duty. He had become quite a friend in those few days. He entertained us, his parents, sister-in-law and nephew with a true banquet: soup with pasta , leg of pork, chicken, gołąbki (cabbage rolls filled with meat and rice), beetroot, cabbage salad, beans, and roast potatoes Wine was on tap almost and there was ice cream for dessert. His invitation was a little awkward, if anything down to his limited amount of English (although that had improved in those few days dramatically!), but it expressed the Polish idea of guests very well: ‘On Sunday you are coming to us, ok? And I will invite my parents too.’ ‘But we should still get to Rypin, and our bus goes at 12 o’clock.’ ‘You will first have dinner with us, and then you can go, ok?’ Indeed, they know what is good for you. As a guest you should be offered a proper goodbye. In the end, the father himself drove us to Rypin (1h 30min drive).

After Rypin, we moved to Płock, to the second family’s younger brother. There we got a true banquet in the evening too: fish salad, beetroot, stuffed duck, schnitzel, vegetable salad, bigos, bread with cheese and meat, tea or coffee and cake to end. Wine and vodka on tap.

In fact, both older people and younger people are very, very hospitable. They would go to any lengths to please you as their guest. Therefore you had better be careful with what you say: before you know it you will have what you mentioned in the morning. If you make the barest allusion to a theoretical plate of pasta, you might find it parked in front of your nose before you finish the sentence. There is only one thing one must like when invited to someone’s home in Poland: meat. It is inconceivable for Polish people to have someone who does not like meat, or even worse, a vegetarian. Although, I did see one book in a bookshop about vegetarian cooking… In fact the son of the second family who entertained us, told us that he went to Italy on holiday and that he was amazed at the little amount of meat they eat over there. The first thing he did when going back home was stop at the first Polish petrol station and eat leg of pork (Golonka as they call it, delicious as it is, I still don’t see a problem with Italian food). What struck me is indeed the great amount of meat they eat in Poland. So much that they eat almost as much meat as potatoes or even more and at the cost of vegetables that are represented by vast amounts of cabbage in all versions (in salad, cooked, sauerkraut, bigos and preserved), beetroot, and preserves like gherkins. These are additions to the main meal though and are not a major ingredient of it, unlike in England (the greens) or other countries.

As I said, as a guest you have to be careful with what you say. If you dare to mention that you eat a lot of pasta or rice, you will get that pasta or rice with your next meal. The only problem is that they might add it to the original meal as a starter and that you will only end up with more food on that table. Or they will do their best so much that they offer you three kinds instead of one kind of e.g. mustard. Not that that is not nice, only you will have to eat it all, so it is in your own interest not to mention too much of the other…

The only thing they expect, is that you taste all. Not that they will ever be truly satisfied unless you have eaten absolutely everything (then they can be sure you liked it), and that is quite impossible. In fact it is quite hard to tell them that you have had enough. Certainly if you eat little you will have a problem, because they will keep persisting that you would have eaten more if you had liked it. The concept ‘too much’ is not in the Polish dictionary. In fact, it is surprising that there are Poles who do not eat such an awful lot, but you as a guest are ironically expected to eat all the time, even if they have long finished… Although, in some instances, a Polish stomach can eat too much. On a certain day in Działdowo, we got pierogi for lunch. Despite the lady of the house saying that we would be hungry in an hour (not likely!), we were not. Still, we got cake and ice cream for ‘in-betweeny’ and she said she would make ‘a little’ for supper. After the ice cream, I had already given up the cake and I had eaten about half of one of the two pieces I had got on my plate. The ‘light’ supper she made us consisted of bread and cheese and sausage with onion! After one sausage my husband and the gentleman of the house were satisfied. Despite this, he (‘the food-terrorist’ his son calls him, which speaks a great deal) kept offering. My husband decided to play the game and told him he would eat one if the gentleman of the house would eat one too. The lady of the house had eaten none, and I had not eaten anything (without protest from them this time!) being full with ice cream and cake. So, the two gentlemen ate their second sausage. That night, my husband was alright, but the Polish stomach was too heavily laden and it was awake the whole night. At breakfast time, he was still not hungry. Only late in the morning. After this incident, we did not get offered as much food as before, message understood. But I am sure the effects of this lesson will wear off…

Another problem might be that as you move from the one to the other, they will have called one another and have found out that you like pasta or that you have a sweet tooth and the things you have said in the one household might start to lead their own lives. As hosts they feel obliged to serve you as best they can, i.e. be there for you and even take you around town in the middle of the night if you express a desire to have a walk. It might be hard to decline their company if you want to go alone and it might be better to just go off or to tell them when you are already going rather than discussing the issue, because you will end up with infinite company.

The thing with Slavs is that you have to dare to put your foot down and categorically refuse. It might seem uncourteous at first, but the benefit will be that neither you nor your host will become frustrated. When being somewhere, your host is waiting to bring you home. If you do not tell him you are tired and you are waiting for him to get tired, he will not become tired at all as he thinks you are not and you will end up sitting there a whole night, both you and your host (and maybe even his guests) frustrated at the length of the evening. For an English, French or Belgian person, you have to do the insolent thing and say ‘I want to go home now’ at a certain time in the evening that seems acceptable to you. The host will never tell his guest to go home, not even if he himself is dropping off to sleep.

Being a guest is quite a gratifying experience as you are the king, but do not abuse your power. Not eating is an insult, particularly if that refusal extends itself to traditional dishes. However, if you do not eat something because you are allergic, you just do not like it or you are not allowed to eat it, you are in no way pressurised to eat it. They will appreciate the explanation more than you just not touching it. The latter would just mean it doesn’t look nice and that (mostly) the lady of the house is a bad cook. They might be puzzled for a while, but the issue will not be mentioned anymore. If you like something, certainly shout ‘mmmmmmmmm’, because it will take the attention away from something you do not eat. If you take something, then eat it all. Leaving something means you didn’t like it. Rather take a little less and take more afterwards, than taking a huge lot and leaving half because it was more than you expected. But… Do not think that you can take all attention away from yourself and that awful fish in the middle of the table. If they do not offer it to you there and then, they will certainly have seen you not eating it and have drawn the conclusion that you do not eat fish. Strange habits will also travel to close relations: the fact that I had eaten the day after arrival (the day after the non-eating disaster) travelled to the son before I had had a chance to tell him. I guess the lady of the house was so pleased she alerted the neighbourhood :D. If you are full then keep repeating it. No compassion. If you have to eat everything on that table, you will end up sick for the whole night.

It is also not rude to start before all people at the table have got their plate or put things on their plate. It is perfectly acceptable to start eating the soup when the lady is still busy putting the next course on the table. In fact, one might say that the concept ‘course-meal’ that was introduced, ironically, by the Russian ambassador to France in the early 19th century, has not entered the collective mind in Poland. Sometimes in Germany you do get your salad a little before your main course, which it belongs to, but in Poland the contrast is quite sharp. Soup, meat, potatoes, vegetables, etc. come on the table all at the same time, like it was before the service à la russe (in the Russian way), called service à la française (in the French way). Pausing between courses (between soup and the rest) is not a must. Because of this of course, Belgians get problems, because they can eat a whole afternoon if need be, but only with regular pauses, not in one go. With a slight reservation at the soup being eaten first, then the rest and the food on the same table as the guests are at, guests are supposed to take what they like and eat as much as they can in any order they wish. The meat takes the centre of the table, as in service à la française.

Certainly do remember the lack of course-structure when you are in a restaurant: the one person orders a starter and the other one not? The two will get their courses at the same time: the one his starter and the other his main course. ‘A guest under no circumstances must be made to feel hungry’ is the thing that lies behind it. So when ordering a starter for two, make sure that the waiter has got that, otherwise the starter comes together with one main course. Also do not be shocked at the fact that not everyone receives his food at the same time: the food is ready? Put it on the table. Golonka and pierogi do not arrive at the same time, so eat your pierogi alone and be merry. Your fellow table-guests will not reproach you for eating when they have nothing and your food will not get cold.

The Germans might not know how to make proper coffee, bless their Lederhosen, but the Polish do. We would expect them not to as we are not in France or Belgium, but they do amazingly good coffee. And no modern machine-crap, only in the most trendy places. In fact you can ask for a Turkish one and they will make you coffee with the grated coffee in the bottom if you wait long enough. Tea is something they also drink a lot and as soon as you enter a household the first question will be if you want coffee or tea. After two times they will not even ask and just make you tea. If you want something else, then by all means tell them! They are bound to have fizzy water, coke, lemonade, and juice for you if you want it. Still water is difficult to come by unless you know the brands that have true still water, because the other that is stamped ‘niegazowana’ is usually lightly fizzy. Someone told us that they do not buy still water in bottles because the Polish water that comes out of the tap is too good. The question remains why they do not serve that same water they drink to you, but it will no doubt be a purely hospitable answer…

Food: if you want to go and eat as a tourist, you have two options. Either you go for the expensive option or you go for the very reasonable option. The expensive option will take you to a restauracja where you pay up to 30 złoty for a main course (we saw one in Poznań with a daring 88 zł (22 euro) price tag for a main course, but that’s an exception), the less expensive one will be the milk bar where you can get a main course for less than 10 zł. For the last option you will have to be prepared for blinding tl-lights and plastic cutlery, but other than that, their pierogi, coffee, tea, knödel and other things are at least as good as in the restauracja, only with a lot fewer frills. But even taking the milk bar into consideration, prices in Poland are very reasonable with an average amount of 4 zł (1 euro) for a coke, 5 for two cups of tea in one pot and 17/18 for a plate of pierogi (usually 8 pieces). Soups are sometimes even below 10. Only try that in Germany or even worse, Belgium: no chance. Foreign food like Pizza or Pasta is starting to get there, but is not very much present, although in most places there must be a crazy Turk who serves besides his Kebab also Pizza. At any rate, the lasagna and pasta we had on the great market square in Płock was very good. However, why have pizza when you can have Polish food?

Because of the excess of meat on the table (for breakfast, dinner and supper, naturally!) it is likely that at some point you will want to have something non-meat for dinner or supper. Or you might want something non-potato for a change. Good news: all menus have pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms on their menu, and some have soups with only vegetables, but some are garnished with sausage.

Pierogi: they are pasta-bags with filling, a lot like ravioli, but it is disrespectful to call them that. Do not fear, pierogi are not made with suet, so they are not heavier than the average ravioli, which allows you to eat as much of them as you think you can manage. They are eaten with meat-stuffing, cabbage and mushroom or à la russe with another type of bacon-filling. They are usually served boiled with fried bacon or bread on top and possibly a side dish of cabbage or something of the sort. After a pierogi main course, ironically, you could move on to the pierogi desert too! It sounds strange, but pierogi can also be stuffed with a cottage cheese-like filling and eaten with sweetened cream, or they can be filled with jam and eaten with sugar on top. The Italians didn’t think of that!

Barszcz: this is beetroot soup. Slavs are crazy about beetroot and eat them cold, hot or preserved and they make soup of them, of course, whatever they prefer. In milk bars you have a choice between Ukrainian, Russian or Polish barszcz, depending on whether you want pieces in it or just ruby-red clear soup.

Golonka: as we stayed with the fanclub of the Golonka, we had no option but to have it. I am not sure whether it was mainly this man’s family’s preference or a general Polish preference, but this leg of pork is certainly delicious.

Dill: they like dill a lot, sprinkled on potatoes, with cucumber, with cabbage. They use both the seeds and leaves of the plant.

Cake: Poles eat little sweet things like jam, but they do like their ‘sernik’ (cheese cake) and ‘szarlotki’, as Wikipedia tells a desert that has been around for some time. So long that the true etymology of it has been lost in the mists of time. It is linked with the well-known Charlotte Russe as that is the latest version, but the traditional one has been around for a longer time. As with the meal à la française, the Poles here again stayed on the quite traditional side of things and did not get strung along by the French. Essentially, ‘szarlotki’ are cakes, with a crusty outside and sometimes crumble topping, with apple or custard filling. Hence the Charlotte Russe with boudoir-biscuits on the side and custard in the middle. That said, the most popular version is the szarlotka with apple in the middle.

It has certainly been an interesting experience to have been with Poles and to have been part of their family and way of life. Not all tourists have that opportunity and I am thankful for having had it. We are in Europe and we are all part of this union, but we are, thankfully, not really alike, otherwise life would get really boring…

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