Polish Christmas

My Christmas smells of smoked plum kompot, fresh resin  and beetroot soup. It tastes of mushroom dumplings and fried red cabbage. My Christmas starts when the first star appears on the dark sky. My family reads a passage from the Bible and we share the wafer, wishing each other anything we believe the other person needs. My Christmas is mainly celebrated on the 24th December. My Christmas table has a bit of hay underneath the tablecloth, reminding us about Jesus’s birth in the stable, and 12 dishes on top of it to bring us luck for the 12 months of the year. There is an extra chair in case someone in need knocks on our door. There are candles and singing of  kolędy before we all leave at midnight to go to the church for pasterka. My Christmas is Polish Christmas. It’s the most special time of the year.

Christmas is not about the presents, rest or food. It is about the closeness. It is the time we gather with our family, we call friends to wish them all the best, we say “Merry Christmas” to strangers around us. It is the time of hope, love and joy.

This Christmas I wish every day of your life to be filled with closeness. Not only towards the important people in your life, but closeness with the world. Let’s love and respect each other regardless of religion, skin colour or any other label. Let’s always keep an empty seat at the table of our hearts for that one person who may come knocking, regardless of where they come from.

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My international Christmas Tree. A Native American, an African King and a Polish góral. There’s enough space for everyone. 

Journey through pages

My days lately have been divided between manic work to finish the projects before the well deserved annual leave, insane amounts of Christmas shopping and thinking how great it would be to escape the cold, grey reality and be somewhere new and exciting instead. Luckily I’ve got my books!

Travel writers have kept me sane whenever wanderlust would hit me hard at a time when life doesn’t provide chances to travel. If you have a full-time job, a relationship and a whole lot of other good things going for you, traveling is not always an option. So what do you do with that insatiable hunger for exploring the world? You read.

If, like me, you wish you could travel every day of your life, or know someone with this on-the-road addiction, here’s what to get them this Christmas: a travel book.

Here’s a list of my top 10 suggestions:

  1. Paul Theroux, “Dark Star Safari”trip from Cairo to Cape Town for anyone dreaming of Africa
  2. Mary Morris & Larry O’Connor, “Women Travellers” – for all the traveling feminists out there
  3. Eric Weiner, “The Geography of Bliss” – for those who travel to find themselves
  4. Ryszard Kapusciski, “The Shadow of the Sun” – for the history, politics and psychology enthusiast
  5. Lonely Planet, “Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing” – for those appreciating or wanting to learn quality writing
  6. Sebastiao Salgado, “Genesis” – a photography album celebrating beauty and diversity of this world
  7. Lonely Planet, “The best place to be today” – 365 suggestions of exiting places to visit and things to do, for anyone who needs an inspiration
  8. Jules Verne, “80 days around the world” – for anyone who likes classics
  9. Jack Kerouac, “On the road” – for the rebels and those missing the Beat generation
  10. Alain de Botton,  “The art of travel” – journey through travel itself, for the traveling philosophers

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Staying Connected

A week ago I spent a weekend in Warsaw. Although I come from the north of Poland, I decided to visit the capital to catch up with friends. It ended up being a different trip than most. And it ended up being exactly what I needed.

Planning the visit, I had a list of places in mind that I was going to show to my partner. We went to Warsaw few years ago, but this time I wanted to make him get a deeper understanding of my country. I planned to take him to Chopin Museum for its modern display of the life of this famous Polish composer, Museum of Ethnography (with its cinema) and the Museum of the Warsaw Rising. All that alongside few art galleries, of which Warsaw has plenty. But the fate had different plans.

On Saturday morning, as I was packing and getting ready to leave for the airport, my other half informed me he was not feeling well. Since he’s been down with flu for the whole week and sounded like it was really serious, we decided he should stay home and recover. I went to Poland alone.

When I landed at the Modlin airport, located on the city’s outskirts, my friend Iza sent her husband to pick me up and we drove to their newly built house in the countryside. My friends, like many young couples from Warsaw, were looking for means of escaping the chaos of the capital by moving out into the suburbs or neighbouring villages. They chose healthy local produce, house surrounded by pine trees and silence, over the noise and pollution of the concrete jungle. And while the townsmen strive for peace and quiet of the countryside, the small-town population dreams of the big city life.

The mix of these two worlds came to life in its entirety the next day, when I was returning to Warsaw. With Iza having a baby I thought it was best to take a bus to the capital. Alongside the trip I ended up getting a truly polish experience. The driver, a tall man with greying moustache talked to me about his little niece and her Christening. As more passengers joined our Polonusbus, the conversation started changing. By the time the forest and fields around us started giving way to wide roads and tall blocks of flats, all of us were engaged in a debate about which tram an elderly lady on our bus needed to take to go from the Dworzec Gdanski to another station. It’s one of those things I love about Poland – people still talk to each other. Even if they don’t know the answer, they won’t be able to resist the temptation to join the conversation. Whether it’s the cab driver, a hairdresser, or a person in a local grocery store, strangers will happily offer you their opinions (whether you asked for them or not). There is something genuinely human in an honest conversation.

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Old Town in Warsaw

The talking continued for the rest of my trip. After reaching Warsaw’s city centre, I went for a walk with my friend Marcin. We admired beautiful tenement houses of the old town, ate delicious fried oscypki (smoked sheep cheese from the Polish mountains) with cranberries at the Christmas market, and sat in my favourite tea house – Same Fusy, talking about life. This cozy place is situated on Nowomiejska street, in a brick basement of an old house and alongside an impressive selection of loose leaf teas it boasts one of the most uniquely intimate atmospheres you can find. The dim light, raw materials and a faint cinnamon scent help to connect on a deeper level. It’s a place where soul doesn’t need to hide from anyone.

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Oscypki

My best friend and I finished our meeting with a dinner at Zapiecek. For many years Poland was somewhat shy about its culture. Years of communism left us few complexes as a souvenir. Growing up, I remember the sense of inferiority many people around me shared. We learnt to look up to west, to appreciate foreign things more than home produce, to complain about the grayness of the Polish existence. But now every time I go back, I see more and more things I am proud of and I see that growing pride in others too. Zapiecek is the best example of that.

Zapiecek is technically a chain of restaurants that serve typical polish cuisine. Unlike many touristy places however, Zapiecek has a really authentic feel and serves proper polish home-made food (the quality of which is proved by the majority of guests being Poles). You can try anything from traditional bigos to dumplings of any kind. From the latter, you can select from two sizes of pierogi plate – the Grandma’s portion and the Grandpa’s portion (I will let you guess which is the smaller one). To really feel like you’re at a relative’s house, you must also order kompot,  a non-alcoholic drink made of boiled fruit.

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I described Zapiecek as a chain but when it comes to Poland and food it’s not the most accurate term. Polish people are very creative and value comfort, warmth and cozy interiors. We like our houses overheated and our cafes welcoming. Out of all the countries I’ve ever visited I still think Poland has the best cafes in the world. Each place is a bit different. Even at Café Nero you will get delicious home-made cakes, original coffee combinations and teas brewed using highest quality loose leaves. The Nero Marcin and I visited in the centre was once a known as Telimena. This oldest café in Warsaw was frequented by Poland’s greatest poets, writers and composers like Juliusz Slowacki and Fryderyk Chopin.

After Marcin, it was time to meet my friend Ala. We spent the whole evening by the candles, listening to Mahalia Jackson’s vinyl voice, talking about the current situation in Poland. The recently elected right-wing party worries many Poles and divides the society into their supporters and those scared of PiS party’s backwards politics impeding country’s growth and stomping citizens’ freedoms. Alongside the increase of radical nationalism, Poland has unfortunately seen a growing wave of racism and islamophobia. In a country were communication is blunt, people speak their minds and an idea of small-talk or political correctness doesn’t exist, we have been witnessing an immense problem of hate speech. Sad, narrow-minded people scared of anything that is not known, have been louder than ever, enticing verbal violence and intolerance. It is deeply saddening to witness this worrying trend. I grew up in Poland going to concerts of African music, watching Indonesian theatre and dancing at Bollywood parties. There weren’t many foreigners, but we craved the outside world, we were curious and wanted to get to know cultures so different to ours. In Gdansk I once attended a mosque belonging to the Tatars, Polish Muslim community, and I remember a lovely lady called Jemima who patiently answered my questions about her religion. This is the Poland I want to see. Proud of its roots, as well as its branches. Colourful. Open and curious. But as long as there are people like Iza, Marcin and Ala, I still have faith in my country.

Sometimes we need to change our plans, throw away to-do list, sit down in a magical place and just talk. Connect with others. Replace polite chit-chat with a real conversation and hear the voices of love in the sea of negativity.

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Same Fusy