Christmas in Poland

I spent my Christmas in Poland, and of course I completely neglected to take any photos, so I’ll have to just share with you a picture of snow from the train, and hopefully my words can describe the food well enough for you to picture it.

CIMG7820

I met Agnieszka in November through a volunteer program called Angloville (a program I still have neglected to write about at this point) located in Poland. Agnieszka was one of the students in this very intensive five day program. Once the program ended we said our good-bye, but through social media we were able to stay in contact. This christmas was my first since my mom had died, and so it was a particularly hard one, or I anticipated it to be emotionally difficult. Agnieszka and her family invited me into her home, and I was treated so warmly, and had many kisses (the Polish kiss three times on the cheek as a hello). I barely thought about mom, until I got back to Prague, and then I cried (like I do almost everyday, but this is grief it makes you cry). It was a very nice Christmas and as a special treat it snowed on the 25th which is the day my mom and I used to celebrate.

I want to share a few things that I observed and in which I participated.

Poland is a Catholic country, and for them the most important day of Christmas is the 24th. The family gathers for an early supper, and afterwards presents are passed out, then they go to Mid-Night mass. On the 25th there is more eating with the family, and church, then the celebration continues on the 26th with more food and church. In Agnieszka’s family we also had a dinner on the 28th because some of the family was in Austria skiing on the 24th.

Agnieszka and her sister Anna (or Annya) emphasized to me with great enthusiasm (because I made them go through the entire three meals with me as I wrote it all down) that every family is different, and traditional food is based on the region and the family. So, with that in mind- this is the traditional Polish dishes from Angnieszka’s family in the Mazowsze region. Their home is about an hour and a half outside of Warsaw.

I took a bus from Prague to Warsaw, and I arrived on the 23rd. After a quiet meal and meeting Anna I went to bed.

The Food

December 24th

First we start with kisses! Okay, actually best wishes. Agnieszka’s mother passed around a tray of Christian wafers called Oplatek. I’m not Catholic or Polish so this was a very new experience for me. The wafer is thin and nearly transparent, it is white in color and has a bland flavor and tended to stick to the roof of my mouth. It is large like the size of a graham cracker, not round like the communion wafers I’ve seen in the movies, and the image of the Virgin Mary or the nativity scene is embossed onto the wafer. First everyone breaks a piece of the wafer off, and then goes to each person in the room to offer them a small piece of your wafer as they offer you a small piece of theirs. With the breaking of the wafer comes a wish for life, the new year, words of hope and love, then you kiss on the cheek (three times of course) and you hug. You do this before eating.

Traditional there are 12 dishes to eat, and there is no meat on the 24th. People tend to eat carp like they do in Czech Republic and in Slovakia. We didn’t have carp we had herring which I am told is a lot better tasting than carp. We also had less dishes because the family was smaller this year, and 12 dishes are a lot of food for a limited amount of people.

The first dish was a borsch (barszcz in Polish). This is a beet root soup with tiny dumplings called uszka which means ears. The uszka is a flour pastry stuffed with boiled mushrooms, and onions that were fried in butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The uszka is placed into the soup bowls first and then the hot beet root soup is poured over the dumplings. This was one of my favorite dishes. The combination of the hot sweet beet with the zing of the onions and mushrooms was delicious.

Next we had the fish. Szuba which is a traditional Russian dish, but they incorporated it into their own Christmas Eve dinner because it is a family favorite. This is a layered dish like a casserole and it is served cold. The first layer is potatoes that are boiled, finely cubed, then salted and peppered. The second layer are onions that have been sautéed in butter. The third layer is the herring. The fourth layer are eggs that have been boiled and chopped. The fifth layer is beets that have been boiled and chopped and the final layer is a thick slather of mayonnaise (yes mayonnaise). The dish must be prepared a day before serving because the flavors all need the time to marinate. The mayonnaise turns a bright pink, and I had absolutely no idea I was eating mayonnaise. I had really liked this dish too, much to my surprise, and before I knew about the mayonnaise. Herring is an interesting and slightly fatty tasting fish. The beets and eggs cut the fatty taste and it was savory with a sweet after taste.

The third dish were the pierogis. Pierogis are a very traditional Polish food, and these ones were specially made for Christmas. The dough is made from flour, salt and water. It is the same dough that is used for the uszka. The pierogis are stuffed with sour and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. They are then boiled, and served immediately after boiling.

The final dish for this meal was a noodle dish made with bow tie noodles. The sauce is made from cream and butter and honey then mixed with nuts and raisons, and poppy seeds. Poppyseeds are a must on Christmas. I don’t know the significance of the poppyseed for Christmas only that is has to be served. I didn’t like this dish. I have discovered that I don’t like pasta in a sweet sauce, and I’m not a huge poppyseed fan.

We ended dinner with kompot a hot drink made from smoked plumes, apples, and pears that are boiled into a hot tea and then mixed with sugar, honey and raisons. I really liked this tea. The smokiness was very strong and it had an earthy taste.

Dessert was a choice of poppyseed cake, fruitcake, or gingerbread cake covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate.

After dinner santa came to visit and gave some presents to the twins and to their baby brother.

December 25th

It snowed.

Breakfast was around 9:00. Supper was around 2:00. Meat is served.

Chicken noodles soup was the first course. I’ve had chicken noodle soup before, but it wasn’t the meal itself that was interesting to me, but how the meal is served. First the cooked noodles are placed into each individual bowl, then you add your own desired amount of dill, then lastly you pour the hot chicken broth over the noodles.

The meat was all cured and smoked by Agnieszka’s father. It was various preparations of pork and wild bore. There were also pickled mushroom, pickled peppers, pickle pumpkin, and pickled plums. The main dish was a roasted duck stuffed with apple dill stuffing. For the second and third day we ate much of the same food that was served on Christmas eve.

In the evening after dinner we had wine and Agnieszka’s parents and sister brought out their homemade liquors and we had a tasting. I’ll list the liquors in the order of my favorite to least.

Ginger-raspberry- This was spicy and sweet, but not too sweet that it was overly syrupy.
Current- sweet and tart
Quince- sweet and sour
Cherry- sweet
Raspberry and quince- sweet and mildly tart
Gooseberry
Ginger- spicy almost hot.
Mirabelka plum- this is made from a small white plume.
Then we had a smidgin of cognac

The 26th and dinner on the 28th was a repeat of many of the same dishes and desserts from the 24th, but the main dish was roasted pork medallions in a dark gravy served with rice.

Portions are served on small plates, as compared to the nearly gluttonous American tradition of piling everything all at once on a plate. Dinner is also much much earlier than it is in the U.S. There is a supper which is large with multiple dishes and served around 2:00 p.m., then there is a small dinner served around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. For dessert or snacks (after the ginger bread cake and coffee or tea) is usually some fruit.

My stomach was full and my heart was calm as I left Poland and took a long train ride back to Prague. I left behind a new friend, and a new family, and traditional dishes, but I was able to bring one small family tradition back to Prague with me. Every morning when I wake up I make myself a hot cup of honey water with lemon. And, just like they taught me, I place the honey in cold water the night before to dissolve and to maintain all of the healing and healthy properties.

Many thanks to my Polish family for a lovely Christmas.

Thinking of Henry Miller

I’ve moved rooms, again. I’ve moved five times since I’ve been in Prague, and I’ve only been here four months. It’s really not all that unusual for me to move so often, but I’ll save all that moving talk for another post. This is about Henry.

I’m currently staying in a hostel. This hostel names their rooms after colors. My last room was “Beige”, and now I have moved into “Ruby”. I’ve also stayed in “Lavender” and “Purple”. Funny enough, my “Beige” room had lavender painted walls; not that that means anything, but I like to pull connections out of nothing. The night before I was to move, I had been lying in my bed in the “Beige” room, and sort of mentally writing. I do this a lot. I imagine that I am writing. Sometimes I am smart about it and actually write these moments of genius thought down, but not often- so my genius is often lost. I was thinking about the first time I had ever read Henry Miller. I’ve been reading Big Sur, by Jack Kerouac, and I was thinking about the part in the novel when he mentions a possible visit with Henry Miller. That’s all that is mentioned in the book, but I know what happened because I had read all of the other accounts from other writers. Maybe it was Carolyn Cassidy or maybe it was Henry or perhaps it was Kerouac himself that had told the story. The plan was for Kerouac to sneak quietly into San Francisco, and meet Ferlinghetti, and together they would drive to Big Sur to have dinner with Henry Miller, and then Kerouac could settle into the cabin, but it didn’t happen. Kerouac came roaring into San Francisco with his bourbon and drinking buddies, and never made it to dinner. Kerouac was already deep into his alcoholic depression, and going to Big Sur was his attempt to try to clear his mind and confront his demons, but he didn’t succeed. He ended up drunk, disoriented, and threatened by the dramatic coastal environment. Where Miller saw life Kerouac saw death.

The book is depressing, even without the part about ditching Miller. It’s depressing because Kerouac is loosing it, and I can recognize the serious depression, delusion, and alcoholism that he is experiencing. The depression is too familiar, and as mine is increasing in its strength, I feel like I don’t need Kerouac, I need someone else. I need Henry.

The first time I ever read Miller, I was staying in a hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was the Princes street hostel, and it was 1998. I had been trying to find work but couldn’t get a job anywhere because of not having a work visa. I had paid for a full week’s accommodation, and bought food for a week, but once that week was up I had no money. I had managed to find work in a hotel, but I was fired after two days. I had never been fired in my life, but I didn’t make a very good maid. I wasn’t fast enough in my cleaning. So far it remains to be the only job I’ve ever lost. I was feeling dejected and nervous about what to do next. There was nothing for me to do, but to wander the city, and go to every museum because they were free. I would sit under the castle and want to cry because of the upcoming homelessness and winter, but it was too beautiful to cry. It was a desperate time, but there wasn’t much I could do except look for work, wander the streets, go to museums, and read.

I had been sitting on the top bunk aimlessly staring out the window when I had noticed Henry Miller’s, “Tropic of Capricorn” on my flatmate’s bed. I was curious to read him only because I had been told I wouldn’t like him. My boyfriend had said that to me when I was 20. He had been reading Anais Nin and Henry Miller. He had told me I wouldn’t like Miller that I would think he was too vulgar, but that I should read Anais Nin. He had felt she was more my style. I ended up reading Nin, but I didn’t care for her writing. Too flowery and perfumey: vagina’s like petals, and sex like every bed had silk sheets. It didn’t appeal. He was wrong about me liking her at that time, but I still trusted his judgement on what I would like and not like so I didn’t try to read Henry Miller.

But, that was five year’s before, and he was, in ’98, engaged to another woman, and I was alone traveling and poor in Scotland. His opinion no longer mattered. Henry was waiting for me. My flatmate gave me the book, and as I read I found myself laughing out loud at his vulgarity, and his boastings and rantings. I remember thinking, “how can a person write like this? How can a person be so free in their expressions. How can a person love life so much?” He spoke to me. I wanted to be as free as he demanded I be— that all people be. To not live among the dead that walk around in the “daily processes”, but to soar with the living. Don’t just get by. Do more than get by- live.

I think in many ways the dead can speak to us through their writings. They tell us to get up, to keep going, to have some passion, and to not give up. To wake up and see the world. The real world not the illusion of the world. I had thought about being a writer. I had written stories as a young girl, but I had felt insecure because really what did I have to say. Writing was for the “intellectuals”. I put all my energy into acting when I was young, but the moment that I read “Tropic of Capricorn”, and saw the way that Miller wrote, I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a writer. In a small way he changed my life. He crossed over the barrier of death and shook me, and gave me permission. I haven’t read a book by Miller in a couple of years, but he comes to my thoughts every now and then.

My move to Ruby was tedious. I only had to move down three floors, but I didn’t bother to pack so it took too long. It should have been a lot easier than it was but the close proximity of rooms made me lazy. I had managed it though, managed to make the chaotic move. The new room has several beds. I could have a huge slumber party I have so many beds. The beds have the graffiti of people who have traveled through Prague and stayed in the hostel. On one of the beds in huge black permanent ink is written, “READ HENRY MILLER NOW.” At one time someone passed through this place that was like me, someone who also was changed by the writer. Someone who also felt that Henry Miller was needed to be read. Now.

An unknown stranger writing on a bed in a ruby room. Look at us talking to each other, and we’ve never even met. See, connections out of nothing, and yet, it’s still a connection.

CIMG7700

My First Christmas without Mom

Christmas time has come to Prague. Not to be a grinch, but I’m a bit bah humbug about the whole affair. Christmas was a special time when I was a child. My mother would wake me early and start with a stocking, then it was time to open the presents. She loved Christmas. Occasionally, I would spend Christmas with my dad, and my grandparents. They switched off. I’m not sure how they came to the agreement of who-gets-the-kid-when, but I’m sure it broke my mom’s heart not to have me with her.

Image

The idea of “the family” was so important to her, so idyllic. She really wanted the white picket fence, the little house, the nuclear family, the perfect Ozzy and Harriet holidays. I imagine when she was a little girl living in the anger and depression that surrounded her and her big sister that she would watch those 50’s and 60’s television shows, and dream about how when she grew up she would have that kind of life. It didn’t work out. There was never a picket fence- not of any color. My mom’s desire for this television life only grew more desperate as she grew older. Her body aged, but she grew into more and more of a child.

When I left home at 18 Christmas kind of ended for me. I would occasionally visit mom, and sometimes my dad’s side of the family, but once grandma Ogin died I knew that the Ogin family Christmas’s were over. I remember one of my cousin’s saying that very same thing. It was grandma Ogin who held that family together. I don’t know why I grew so cold to Christmas. It just didn’t mean anything to me. I’m not religious, and “family,” well, it wasn’t like television. I like the lights, I think it’s pretty, but that’s about it. When I see images of Black Friday and other mania missions of purchasing, I think it’s a fairly gross holiday. Still, I understand that it matters to people, and it is a special time for them. It had mattered to my mother.

CIMG7644

This is my first round of holidays after my mom’s death, and all I feel is regret. Regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to go home and spend every Christmas with her- no matter how stressful it was at times- I still should have done it. But, that’s what death does it brings up all the should haves and could haves that the living has to deal with and settle alone. Christmas doesn’t change anything.

I’ve gone to all of the markets in Prague and I buy the hot wine, have a sweet treat, take pictures of the trees and the lights and I try to feel something. I don’t, I don’t feel anything; not joy or grief. But, I am in Prague, and when I can pull myself out of my misery to see beyond my grief I am aware that not everyone gets to be where I am right now. Death or no death I’m still experiencing life, and to some my life is glamorous because I am traveling, and death be damned.

CIMG7648

So, I’ll continue to force myself out into the lights amongst the smiling strangers, and the children, and the sweets smells, and warm steam rising from cocoas, hot wine, and late night coffees. I’ll climb towers and snap photos of picturesque images. But, honestly, I found more joy spending time in the Kampus museum looking at paintings and collages than I did wandering in the markets, and I think that is okay. It is okay to see it as just another day especially when each day should be held as spectacular and precious, and just because my mother is dead it doesn’t have to hold anymore power of grief over me than any other day of grieving.

And, look at that castle, my mother would have been so impressed.
CIMG7661
Now, if it snowed…maybe the Prague Christmas would seduce me. And, I always appreciate a proper seduction.