Polish-style Independence Day

I seem to be slipping into “yesterday” reporting. Yesterday was the Independence Day of Poland. On days like these, you really gotta take your hats off to the Americans for the way they do 4th of July. Barbeque, pretty fireworks and general good spirits all round.

Dunno when it became a tradition in Poland for Independence Day to be a “watch your back” and “don’t get stuck in traffic” day. Instead of the loving feeling, especially with getting the real estate (although in a slightly dislocated format) back after over 100 years of limbo, it’s a day of publicly airing your grievances. Perhaps the hallmark (too grand a word) of independence is you have the freedom to gripe all you want. Here’s a scene of the demo’s in the city center yesterday.

One year, I chanced upon a rather hairy demo by skinheads (ok, cheesy word play) demanding “Poland for Poles only”. There were lots of padded commandos on duty so I felt safe despite obviously not looking like a native.

Anyway, seems like a good time to dig out my article in the Warsaw Insider about the national anthem of Poland, written for the Euro2012 issue:

The Song of Fights (Warsaw Insider, June 2012)

As you listen to the rousing national anthem of Poland at the EURO2012 opening match, your ears will tune in to the refrain of “Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski”. Who’s this Dąbrowski chap and what’s the whole story?

Mazurek Dąbrowskiego (Dąbrowski’s mazurka), the Polish national anthem, was born in exile in 1797 when Poland existed not on the map. (BTW, the mazurek here doesn’t refer to the sweet Easter treat but Polish folk dances with a triple time groove.) Its story is complicated since it’s not all about god saving a queen, but it’s deeply entwined with the country’s rocky past.

Version one was written by Józef Wybicki in the Cisalpine Republic (present day Italy) to rally General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski and his battalion. In hope of resurrecting their homeland, Polish soldiers allied with Napoleon, thus finding themselves serving under French colours in Italy. Wybicki’s words urged Dąbrowski and his men to return to Polish soil to save the nation.

Instated as the national anthem in 1926, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego has since undergone several revisions to be in synch with the political climate of the times. A hymn that once began with “Poland has not yet died” now starts with “Poland has not yet perished” (there’s a subtle difference though I am not sure what).

Given that we are not expecting any incoming missiles, perhaps it’s time to update the text again? A lawyer to whom I threw this question riposted with: “We like fighting. We had several uprisings in our history. The anthem is related to those events. I can’t imagine any other anthem. Our anthem says a lot about fights which were very important in our history.”

Thankfully, the fights this month are on football pitches.

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And there was Jacob

Previously in Warsaw, at a baked potato bar named Groole, I thought I saw a vampire. I told my neighbour’s kid about it. A Twilight fan that she is, she said I might have been looking at Alice since my verbal composite picture of the waitress-vampire didn’t conjure the image of Bella.

Yesterday, my young accomplice and I went out for a spot of vampire-stalking.

Alice wasn’t there. The bar was manned by a all-male crew. We set aside our disappointment and ordered a plain cheese and butter for me and bryndza for the kid. Then someone called out the orders for picking up at the counter. And handing the baked spuds to me was Jacob. Ok, just his look-a-like. The eyes and brows were uncannily similar to Edward’s arch-rival in matters of the heart. My sidekick thought it’s good enough a copy of Jacob except for the skin tone. Well, that’s what you get for living in a sunshine-denied patch like Poland.

We wondered if we would meet Edward next time at Groole.

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Poland in News This Month

British news, that is. And in the two of the publications I read regularly: the FT Weekend and More Intelligent Life.

Making it to the “Lunch with the FT” column, for me, is akin to getting a special guest appearance slot in Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. It’s being toasted as the It Person. It’s icing on the cake for those who already have a free pass to the hall of fame. Those chewing the fat with the FT tend to dwell on here and now topics.

Last week, when the column featured a figure closely related to Poland, the focus was decidedly about the past. Perhaps that’s unavoidable since the man being watered and fed was a historian. Norman Davies, Welsh by descendent, an honorary Pole by career choice. Most likely, every household here has a copy of Davies’ “The Heart of Europe”. That title probably raised a few eyebrows of other nationalities. When he wrote a brick of a book about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and named it “Rising 44”, it forever confused Poles about the English word for an insurgency. The museum in the capital city mandated with publicizing that tragic episode insists on calling itself the “Warsaw Rising Museum“.

Back to the news. The FT column began with a flashback. One which Poland (and Norman Davies, too) is forever intertwined with: the opening act of World War II. The other story with Polish interest sounds grim. Entitled “A Soprano who Loves to Die”, it’s decidedly about the present: a Polish talent basking in operatic limelight.

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Baked Potatoes and a Vampire

I think I saw a vampire. Last Saturday. At a baked potato joint.

OK, just let me kid myself for a bit. We are a fair bit away from Transylvania. And even more fairer bit away from Phoenix, Arizona and Forks, Washington, where Belle, Edward and their batty pals bloody their fangs. Warsaw’s nightlife has perked up a fair bit in the recent years but rapacious thrills aren’t on the itinerary…yet.

But she, the waitress at the potato bar, had a complexion so pale, so pearly as if she’s was drained of blood. And what big eyes she had. Not the bushy, wolverine type, but the sweet, innocent scanners Japanese manga give to their damsels in distress. Had she shimmered forward to catch the cutlery holder I tipped over accidentally that would have freaked me out totally. Crash the forks and knives did and she wasn’t flustered.

I don’t know how often she clocks in but I can tell you where she works. The baked potato specialty eatery is called Groole.

Related posts: Potato Issues.

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Good Disc Hunting

Foraging for food seems such a novel idea. Or rather, retro; a revival of the way it used to be in the hunting and gathering days of the bygone. However in Poland, foraging is so part of the autumn scene that folks don’t even think of it as foraging. While some folks hurry to fit in a few more BBQ’s before rain halts outdoor cooking, others get a head start with grzybobranie (mushroom picking).

Over a decade I’ve been here but last week was only my second outing to scour for edible discs. Edible is the keyword. Even trained eyes now and then falter and let into the basket the poisonous pretenders of the innocuous. Graham Crawford, one of my favorite Poland-based English language journalists, penned (verb: pen; not noun: penne) a peal against romanticizing finding-fungi-in-the-woods (last year, or maybe further back; one loses track of time) in his “Without Rhyme or Region” column in the New Poland Express. Every year, some members of the find-your-own camp lose their lives or land in hospitals due to a few mo’s of oversight. In the said column, kids were rushed to hospital with liver failure after servings of mushrooms of mistaken identities. In more fortunate cases, the bad stuffs might only induce vomiting. I have cautious friends who will only eat mushrooms that have been gathered by themselves or trusted parties (parents, siblings, and partners).

So, it’s not an activity to bounce merrily into without good sense and sensibility. It’s not Disneyland out there. Without any in-house expert (and other operational constraints), my count stayed at one. I did enjoy my first encounter. It was in the private grounds of a neighbour’s country home (działka). In the game of hide and seek, your eyes gradually adjust to the nuances of the mossy undergrowth, and a burst of satisfaction comes when you spot the harvest. Success spurs you to trample on, and before you know it, you’ve spent the whole morning in soothingly Zen-like haze. The sort I imagine you get from meditation.

If you live in Warsaw, the competition from other foragers is intense. For some, it’s not a weekend hobby, but a livelihood. The goods are gathered and sold, either as-is or pickled. To bring home something to chow, you’re best to start the action early, like 6 a.m. Yes, this is one of the “operational constraints” mentioned above.

The web offers tips on how not to come home empty handed. Look for pine forest carpeted with moss. But our single (as in one piece) find last weekend was in a birch tree patch. It’s still early in the season, we might still bring back more than one serving.

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What Polish Cows Cannot Do

What can a Dutch cow do? And can an Argentinean cow copy the same act? Do cows have the same inherent characteristic regardless of passports? Anyway, I learnt recently what Polish cows cannot do – they can’t change their opinions (Tylko krowa nie zmienia poglądów).

I gleaned that nugget from a Polish blog called fastfoodeater, where the author documents and rates products found in lower-end supermarkets, such as Biedronka, Lidl, Kaufland, et al. If you’re what you eat, then you’re also where you shop, at least, your public image is. Some folks shun these bottom-rung food sources but I’m a fan of Biedronka (scroll down to see the chain’s signage) for they have the best mangoes in town (when in season).

The fastfoodeater shut down his jottings last year with a “I’ve had enough”. This August, he revived it, enlisting the cow in his opening paragraph. Welcome back, fastfoodeater! I wish every community has a food sleuth like you.

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Beet It (5)

Yes, I had a hiatus from Poland-watching, but beetroot, the benighted native goodie of this land, is never far from my mind. Ever ready to put in a good word for it, I am. I tripped upon the maroon root veg last week’s Lunch with the FT. Author Ian McEwan likes its hue so much that he orders it when he sees it on a menu.

Related post: Beet It (2)

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