Polska Polka Party


My extended family in Poland really knows how to throw a good party.  We were staying with my aunt and uncle in Laka, a small village near the town of Pszczyna in southern Poland.  Since we were there, they decided to invite my other aunts and uncles and all of my cousins to a big barbecue party. Many of the cousins didn’t see each other regularly despite living only a few hundred yards from each other.  I hadn’t seen some of my cousins in 13 or 27 years.

Roll out the barrel!

It was a Saturday in September and one of the last good days of summer.  Around 1pm one of my cousins started a wood fire in the grill.  After he had some hot embers, he mounted two giant hams on a large spit.  He tended the fire the rest of the day.  I started calling him the Grillmaster.

Everyone arrived around 3pm.  The hugs and kisses seemed endless.  Then it was time to party.  The first thing on the agenda was to eat dessert.  In Poland, the dessert is often served before anything else.  Many kinds of home-made cakes were brought out of the secret basement pantry.  Tea and coffee were served.

The polka band started playing during dessert.  The band consisted of my cousin’s two sons, Martin (17) and Kuba (12).  Martin played the accordion and Kuba played the bass drum.  The boys played with spirit and energy.  Polka songs all sound the same to me.  Still, it is happy music and great for getting a party going full steam.

the boys in the band
Martin and Kuba, our polka band

The first wood smoked ham was ready.  It was taken off the spit and sliced with a giant carving knife.  It tasted delicious.  The aunts had prepared potato, rice, and cabbage casserole dishes to go along with tomatoes from the garden.  I skipped all of that to concentrate on the ham and fresh bread.

ham on the grill
It tasted delicious!

Cases of Zywiec beer appeared.  Since I was there, some of them were actually stored in the fridge to be cold for the American guest.  The rest were room temperature.  Some people mixed beer with a couple of different things.  Some people liked their lukewarm beer with a fruity syrup.  I tried that and it tasted awful!  Others poured half a glass of beer and then dumped Coke into it.  I didn’t try that because it just looked bad to me.

After dinner it was time to drink vodka shots and some combustible Greek aperitif that tasted like it should be used to scour the barnacles off of a ship’s hull.  During the drinking I noticed that quite a few of the family had disappeared from the table.  I thought that’s pretty normal when 40 people are gathered.  Some people have to fix more food, make phone calls on their new cell phones, or walk off some of the beer and vodka buzz.

Then the band started up again and a dozen people danced out of the house.  They were dressed up in costumes like it was Halloween.  We had a Native American chief, Charlie Chaplin, cowboys and cowgirls, women dressed as men, and men dressed like the prostitutes I saw standing by the side of Polish highways.

party dancers
It's early for Halloween... do they even have that here?

The costumed people danced with wild abandon.  They brought the party to life.  They got everyone to leave the food tables and dance like crazy people.

When we were all tired out from dancing, the second ham was ready to eat.  We all sat down to a second dinner.  This time we also had Polish sausage and some strange substance that was cooked on the grill in tinfoil.  I thought I’d try some of that mystery food.  It turned out to be blood sausage.  I took one bite and that was enough for me.  It was nasty stuff.

As the sun set, more beer was consumed, more vodka shots were downed, and the conversations got louder and funnier.

Everyone enjoyed being together again, like in the old days when we were all so much younger.  Time passes but the bonds of family remain.

To see a short video of the Polska Polka Party dancing, click here.


The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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The American Patient and the Polish Doctor

there is no escape

It’s best for everyone concerned if you avoid getting sick while you travel.  If you think like I do that it’s bad to have to go to the doctor in your home country, it can be infinitely worse having to go to the doctor in a foreign country.

Sure, I know some countries have excellent medical practices and the latest in modern health technology.  But some don’t.

there is no escapeA long time ago in a Soviet-bloc country far, far away I was visiting my grandparents when it was time for my annual strep throat attack.  One day I felt fine and was playing with my cousins.  The next day I couldn’t swallow and couldn’t get out of bed.

Having seen this before, my mother knew I needed to see a doctor.  In those days, a shot of penicillin knocked out strep throat pretty fast.  Without the drug, it might be a week or more until recovery.  I have always hated going to the doctor and hated getting a shot of any kind.

Very few people had cars in Poland back then.  You had to be on a waiting list for years before it was your turn to be able to buy a car.  My father’s cousin Bernard had a car.  My father called him and Bernard agreed to take us to the doctor.

We climbed into Bernard’s VW Golf and headed to the nearest city called Pszczyna to find the hospital.  The hospital was in a very old decrepit building that looked like it had been attacked by both the Germans and the Russians during the war and never repaired.  Bullet holes intermixed with large cracks from artillery bombardments filled the walls.  Unsmiling guards with machine guns guarded the front door.  I might have been hallucinating, or maybe it was the fever.

We waited on hard wooden chairs in a long hallway.  The strong smell of antiseptic filled the air.  Ugly nurses carried trays with foot long hypodermic needles into private rooms where muffled screaming could be heard.   I was terrified.

Finally, it was our turn to see the doctor.  We went into the examining room.  The doctor was a middle aged woman who looked like Rosa Kleb, the maid assassin and number two of SPECTRE from the classic James Bond film From Russia With Love.  I think she even had a stiletto hidden in the shoe, ready to stab me if I got unruly.

The evil Dr. kleb
The Polish Doctor

She was tired and she was crabby.  She had been drinking vodka during her lunch break.  Her breath was combustible.  I think she had a wart on her nose.  She looked at me like I was Hansel and wanted to stick me in the oven.  She started to examine me and was asking my father what my symptoms were.

Then she pulled out a giant tongue depressor.  It was as big as a canoe paddle.  She motioned to me to open my mouth.  I tried to open it but my throat hurt.  I couldn’t get it open wide enough.  The doctor yelled at my father.  My father yelled at me.

“Open your mouth wider!  Come on, what’s wrong with you!”

Uh, I’m pretty sure I’m sick.  I have strep throat for the seventh year in a row.

I grimaced and stretched to open wider.  Dr. Kleb pushed the canoe paddle closer and closer.  She got the front edge of it past my lips and kept pushing.

“Say Aaahhhhh” said my father.

“AAAAAhhhh” I garbled as the evil Dr. Kleb pushed the canoe paddle to the back of my throat, engaged my gag reflex, and I promptly threw up all over her socialist worker’s utopian doctor’s smock.

The doctor yelled at me.  She yelled at my father.  My father yelled at me.  It went around like that for a minute or two.  My father thought it was my fault.  I couldn’t get him to listen and understand that it was her fault.  She was incompetent.  Who shoves a canoe paddle down the throat of a sick child?  They don’t do that in America.

I was sent back to the hard wooden chair in the hallway.  After a long time an extremely ugly nurse named Brunhilda showed up.  She talked with my father.

“There is good news and bad news” said my father.  “The good news is that you are going to get a shot of penicillin so you can get better and go back to playing with your cousins.  The bad news is that the doctor won’t believe us when we tell her that you are not allergic to penicillin.  So they have to test you first.”

That sounded like all bad news to me.

Brunhilda pulled my pants down and shot me in the left butt cheek with a foot long needle.  She shot me in the right butt cheek with another foot long needle.  Both sides hurt equally.  I was then sent to sit on the hard wooden chair in the hallway to wait until I had a severe allergic reaction and died, or didn’t react and would get another shot.

After an eternity sitting on the hard wooden chairs, the evil Dr. Kleb and the extremely ugly Brunhilda returned.  Dr. Kleb looked me over and determined that I was fit for yet another shot.  Down went the pants, in went the foot long needle into the right butt cheek.  Now the right butt cheek hurt twice as much as the left butt cheek.

On the ride home we stopped in the town square for an ice cream cone.  It was little consolation for the earlier trauma.  I had entered a Polish hospital and lived through the experience.  I never wanted to return.

I still get nightmares after watching “From Russia With Love.”

Poland: Then and now

Main square in Pszczyna, Poland

Communist Poland, 1984. The old bus was crowded as it lumbered along the pot-holed road between towns on the way to the mountains. We stood in front next to the driver. The seats were filled with old babkas from nearby villages, dressed in worn skirts and drab head scarves. The babkas were peasant grandmothers on their way to town to visit relatives or to attempt to shop. Some coal miners, already blackened with the dirt and soot of previous days, were on their way to work. My cousin Henry and I had left Pszcyna an hour before, and were on our way to Strumien. We were on a mission to find beer.

Old Fiat 125 in Poland
So small that your knees cover your ears to keep out the noise!

It was always somebody’s birthday there, or close enough to it. With large, extended families living within a stone’s throw of each other (and sometimes even next door), there was no shortage of reasons to host a party. My cousins were mostly young adults and I had just graduated from college. I was visiting the old world before I had to join the working world. The party organizing committee had held a meeting, and Henry and I had been given the task of finding beer for the party.

Locating and buying any particular consumer good in a communist country in those days was typically a complex and time-consuming process. If you knew the right somebody, maybe you could make a deal quickly. If you didn’t, you might end up standing in line for hours. More often than not, after waiting in line for hours, you might come up empty. We had already checked at several stores in Pszczyna for beer and couldn’t find any. Henry suggested going to another town to look.

The stores were a complete joke, by western standards. But of course the Poles weren’t laughing. One time we went to Katowice, which is a big city in the industrial heartland of Poland. We went in store after store and the only thing we could find to buy were carved wooden souvenirs. Jewelry boxes, walking sticks, chess sets, decorative plates. These were carved by people from the Tatra Mountains. Anything a tourist might be inclined to buy (and there weren’t many tourists then), was produced in the hope of obtaining hard currency. Ordinary consumer goods were almost nonexistent.

However, if you were lucky enough to have US dollars or other western currencies, you could shop in small specialty stores. Before being allowed into the store, you had to show that you had dollars to spend. In these stores, western consumer electronics were available, and there were no lines. When the headphones broke for my Sony Walkman, I bought a replacement pair and a music cassette tape in one of those stores. My cousins were envious of the fact that I could walk into that store and buy something.

Even seemingly simple items were usually unavailable. One day on a previous trip, I was bored.

“Can we play football?” I asked. Soccer to Americans, football to the rest of the world.

“No. We have no ball,” my cousin Peter replied.

“Why not? You mean none of you have a football?” I was incredulous. As a typical American guy I think I had at least half a dozen sports balls of various shapes and sizes in the garage back home.

“No. There hasn’t been a football for sale around here for years,” said Peter. “You can only get a ball if you are a member of the club.”

It was explained to me later that the town had a football club for boys, but only a few were allowed or considered good enough to join. In the centrally planned economy, some deskbound bureaucrat clearly had misjudged the demand for balls.

The consumer goods that were sometimes available were incredibly shoddy too. Some people were proud of their color televisions. The problem was, they were available in either red or green. By this I mean this picture! The picture on some TVs was primarily red. The picture on some other TVs was primarily green. I never saw a TV picture even approximating the right color scheme. Forget about watching the Wonderful World of Disney in Living Color.

The shows were mind-numbingly boring too. There was three hour coverage of a military parade, including long-winded speeches by Communist Party functionaries. They had in-depth reporting and interviews with farmers about the harvest and farm equipment manufacturers with their new tractors. The news shows consisted of socialist propaganda delivered unemotionally by comatose news anchors. I think there was only one channel.

Since it was so tough to get ordinary things people living in western capitalist democracies take for granted, we often sent a package to my relatives. My grandmother suffered from headaches, and a bottle of aspirin from America helped ease the pain. The package went by sea and took several weeks to get to Poland. Then the package would be mired in the Polish post office for an unknown and variable amount of time before being delivered.

Sometimes the contents would be pilfered. The postal workers obviously could see that it came from the US, and the outside of the package included a manifest of the contents. Don’t want the evil capitalists to sneak subversive literature into the socialist paradise. One time my cousin asked for a pair of Levi jeans, which were very popular at the time. We bought a pair and sent it in a package with a bunch of other stuff. Somebody at the post office stole the Levis and substituted them with an inferior East European pair of pants. A pair of pants were indeed delivered, just not the right ones.

We got to Strumien and finally found some beer to buy. With a case in each of our arms, we caught the next bus back to Pszczyna and joined the party.

The Communists were finally thrown out of power during the history changing year of 1989. Times were tough in the 1990s as the country changed from a rigid planned economy to a free-wheeling market economy. However, in less than 20 years things had tremendously improved. People were optimistic and motivated to work for their future. The new generation shook off the old burdens and surged ahead. Political and economic freedom made all the difference.

Main  square in Pszczyna, Poland
A cafe in the main squre of Pszczyna, Poland

A couple of years ago I walked around the medieval main square in Pszczyna. During the Communist era, the only places open were a milk bar, a small book store, and an ice cream stand (lodi!). The buildings were falling apart in disrepair. Now there were new stores, restaurants, and bars everywhere. The buildings were renovated and many were freshly painted. The square was packed with shoppers buying fashionable clothes, toys, and electronics. The TVs in the store windows had all the right colors. Young people lounged in the outdoor cafes smoking, drinking coffee, laughing, and discussing the latest computer games. Tourists stood in line to tour the castle palace called the Museum Zankowe.

And in the middle of the square, a small group of teenaged boys were practicing their juggling tricks and passes to each other with a new football.

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