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01.29.2004

Why I Like Poland

For those just tuning in, I recently came back from a three-week visit to the old country, my first in three years.

Courtliness

In Poland, the proper way for a man to greet a woman is by kissing her hand. The proper way to address a person with whom you are not on very close terms is as "My Lord" or "My Lady". When writing to someone, you capitalize the second-person pronouns and leave the first-person ones in lower case. You address the envelope to the "Respected Lord/Lady So-and-so".

These formalities are absolute - even when you're swearing at a cab driver, you are expected to observe decorum. This can make even the most minor fracas in a bus queue sound like a tetchy day at the House of Commons. "My Lord is a filthy pig! My Lady is a tramp and a harlot, and her Ladyship's face looks best suited for sitting on!"

Carp

In America, this king of fishes is practically impossible to find outside of a goldfish bowl. Maybe it's because carp can have a muddy river-bottom taste if not properly prepared. But a correctly purged carp (left to fast for a few days before slaughter, with time to contemplate its sins) is the most heavenly, delicate fish there can be, pan-fried and served up hot. And besides, Americans seem to enjoy the inveterately muddy catfish.

I suspect the real reason carp isn't eaten here is because Americans are too wussy to deal with all the cunning little bones embedded in its flesh. This is, after all, the land of the individually-wrapped cheese slice. We are a people grown fat on convenience. And to American restaurants, a carp must look like a liability lawsuit with fins. So its consumption is limited to people like the Poles, the Chinese, and the Jews, who are used to hardships and don't mind a little risk with their fish course.

Applause

In all of Eastern Europe, it's traditional for passengers on an airplane to applaud when it lands. The cynic in me is tempted to call this a legacy of the Tupolev days, when a safe landing was truly a special occasion, but I prefer to think of it as an acknowledgement that flying ten kilometers above the Earth at near-sonic speeds is something to appreciate. For unknown reasons this custom irritates the stuffing out of certain of my American friends, who will be glad to know it is slowly dying out, reserved now only for more spectacular landings in heavy rain or turbulence.

A second great innovation of the Slavic tribes is rhythmic clapping, which serves as a useful intermediate stage between loud applause and a standing ovation. I believe this is the same thing as the slow handclap in England, but in Eastern Europe it has a very positive connotation. Not only does it sound cool to hear an audience segue from general applause to a slow, rhythmic clapping, but it makes it much easier to lure a musician or performer back for an encore. After all, you can't hear a standing ovation.

The Giant Holiday Aid Orchestra (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy)

The Orchestra is Poland's version of the Jerry Lewis telethon. It started in 1993 as a fundraising event to help buy equipment for the children's cardiology unit in the main Warsaw hospital. Over the next 11 years, it has grown by leaps and bounds, to the point where the one-day drive is practically a national holiday. In the process, the Orchestra has raised $44 million to fund equipment for pediatric surgery, transforming Poland from a backwater into one of the world leaders in treating serious congenital defects and diseases in children. Last year, Poland became the first country on earth to test the hearing of all newborn babies. The survival rate for pediatric surgery has doubled since 1993, due entirely to the Orchestra. Polish hospitals, which have traditionally had very well trained medical staff and microscopic budgets, now have the resources they need to operate at a First World level.

All of this is the effort of one single man, Jerzy Owsiak, who has turned the telethon into a public carnival that turns out massive crowds in every major Polish city. On January 11, it is almost impossible to find a Pole anyhwere who does not have a big red heart sticker on his lapel, indicating that he's donated some money to one of the hordes of children deputized to take up collection. Particularly inspiring is the fact that the Orchestra spends 100% of its funds on aid - what administrative costs there are are paid out of interest on the previous year's donations. Because the Orchestra pays in cash up front, it has been able to negotiate major discounts, so each dollar collected goes even further. It is the largest charity effort of its kind in Europe.

Soup

Poles eat three meals a day - breakfast, a small supper at around seven in the evening, and the main meal of the day sometime between one and three o'clock. This last always consists of a soup course and a second course, usually some variant on hunk of meat + starch. Because soup is served every day, Polish cooking has evolved a great variety recipes, all of them delicious and most practically unknown outside the country: chicken soup (rosół), sorrel soup (zupa szczawiowa), fermented rye soup (żurek), pickle soup (zupa ogórkowa), potato and vegetable soup (kartoflanka), sauerkraut soup (kapuśniak), beet soup (barszcz), mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa), split pea soup (grochwka), barley soup (krupnik), tripe (flaczki), tomato soup (zupa pomidorowa), chilled beet and sorrel soup (chłodnik, also know by me as Pepto-Bismol soup, for its color) and a thousand others, including many regional variants. Whole civil wars would have been fought about the proper way to prepare barszcz, if not for all the invasions.

Dairy Bars

The dairy bar (bar mleczny) is where frugal and impecunious Poles go for soul food, a cross between a school cafeteria and an old-style American diner. Dairy bars were once ubiquitous in the socialist era, operated by the dour tribe of professionally hostile white-coated women who effectively ran the country back then (they continue to thrive in the civil service, which functions as a kind of wildlife preserve for homo sovieticus). The name 'dairy bar' comes from the fact that most of these places did not serve meat, or at least not regularly (meat was a "deficit product"). Dairy bars specialized in soups, dumplings, crepes, noodles, omelettes, and other basic dishes, served with alumium cutlery on a worn porcelain plate, with the weight of each portion always scrupulously listed on the grooved notice board that serves as a menu.

Many of these bars have gone out of business since 1989 - they were subsidized to the gills - and many others have converted into Ye Olde Inns, Rustic Peasant Kitchens, and similar monstrosities, but those that remain are generally still in business for a reason. The only difficulty is figuring out which dish is the establishment's secret masterpiece. For example, the dairy bar on the way to Wawel Castle in Kraków will feed you a marvelous plate of scrambled eggs with sausage, served on a little individual frying pan. The bar across from the Old Town on the east bank of the Vistula in Warsaw makes delightful crepes.

Visiting a dairy bar can be a little tricky for a foreigner - anyone who can speak English can probably find a better job than serving derelicts in a dairy bar, after all. So I would suggest coming armed with a clear list of Polish dishes, and submitting your request in writing. After all, you don't want to accidentally wind up with a plate of blood sausage and beef tripe, unless of course it's the dairy bar in Zakopane, where the tripe is to die for...

6:25 PM

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