The Art of Being Polish

1 January 2019

Not many people can say they have participated in folk dancing, or routinely travelled across seas because they have no relatives in the United States, or, unfortunately, tasted cow gut soup (known properly as flaczki), but I can proudly admit that I have. Despite my heritage often, or perhaps nearly always, clashing with the American culture around me, I would not trade my hectic life for all the normalcy in the world. Being born in Poland and raised in a Polish household has not only impacted everything about me, but it simply defines who I am.

Ever since I was a little girl, I noticed that my life ran a bit differently than everyone else’s. I always ate my dinner right after school and I always needed to help my friends understand what my parents were telling them. Sometimes I even accidentally slipped Polish words into my everyday conversations, assuming people would understand me. After time I came to realize, however, that all these differences did not set me apart, but made me an individual, and provided me with indispensable opportunities throughout my life.

As I mentioned, about every other summer my parents and I would travel to Europe to reunite with my relatives. We would stay in my grandmother Wis?awa’s small house in the even smaller town of Trzebinia. I know the majority of people would be ecstatic to be able to leave the continent, but in my case, severely lacking any contact with any of my friends, watching one of the only five available channels on my grandmother’s prehistoric television, was nothing to look forward to—that is, until I allowed myself to open my mind.

At some point while I was in Poland the summer of 2009, I began to notice peculiar details. I began noticing the differences in how people related, greeting each other with kisses rather than handshakes, communicating through phone calls rather than texts, riding miles on bikes to meet in a park rather than driving down to the mall. I began noticing that the streets were significantly emptier because people actually valued taking strolls through town with their neighbors and admiring the simplicity. And especially, I began noticing how bizarre this all seemed to me, despite it being a part of who I am.

So I aimed to change that.

The next time my grandmother went grocery shopping to the local market, I tagged along. Many vendors make their livings by setting up food kiosks in the town square. After buying the right ingredients, my grandmother and I prepared dinner together, rolling out the dough and folding in the filling for the traditional Polish dish—pierogi. The best news came while we were eating: My mother announced that next morning we would set off on a road trip.

Road trips can have many destinations, beaches for example, yet the first destination of our road trip was no beach, but rather the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz. I remember my parents mentioning they wanted to take me there before, but until that summer I had not been old enough. I could never admit that it was a pleasant time, but I can admit that the experience changed my entire perspective of life forever. Even though I had the opportunity to spend the rest of the day exploring one of the most culturally rich cities in the entire world, Krakow, I could not bring myself to forget the essence of human suffering I felt in Auschwitz.

From then on, being Polish was not merely an interesting fact for me to share. It became a lifestyle. I embraced that I was different—and I embraced it not because I did not have a choice in the matter, but because the culture and my identity are synonymous.

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