Posts Tagged ‘history’

I must say, this year’s Christmas was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had, the best in a long time at least. And I don’t think it has differed oh so much tradition-wise from the past few Christmases, maybe my partakedness. (Wow, you know I’m forgetting my English when I start making up words. Traditionwise and partakedness? What is this Joanna!?) [1]

A big part of what made this Christmas awesome, though, was family. I may have mentioned this before, but I’ve missed out on the whole extended family thing my entire life. I’ve never spent a Christmas with any family other than my two parents and two sisters. This year, spending it with my dad (who flew in from Canada), sister (who is here with me in Krakow) my aunt, great-aunt, grandma, and two cousins was something new and it felt really special. Actually the whole week was special. I’ve learned more about my family and their history than I have in the past few months. My dad’s presence in Poland just released a string of reminiscing for my family. I endlessly heard stories about what it was like under communistic Poland, about my dad and aunt’s youth, about my grandma’s and great-aunt’s youth, about even their parents, which I really don’t know much about. I really enjoying listening to their stories, not only because it gives me a better understanding of the way my family came to be, but because it gives me more depth into Poland’s history, particularly during the Cold War period. I took a semester of History last year, focusing on the 1900’s, and thoroughly enjoyed the class. I really do love history. But what’s great is my family, my own parents, lived through those times, and were involved. I also become more insightful, though not as much at the elders of course, of how times have changed. The times are really freaking different these days.

Back to Christmas! And back to the beginning. Christmas already started to feel different months ago. By that, I mean, it didn’t feel like Christmas yet at all. In Canada, you will start seeing ads for Christmas, commercials, products, chocolates, decorations in October. I swear I see my first Christmas commercial every year in September. It’s ridiculous! Christmas is so commercialised, so advertised, so… fake. Movies paint the scene, Santa Claus holds up his Good and Naughty Lists, presents and decorations explode everywhere you look, and Christmas-stress beats down on you. Yes, that is a thing. The shops are filled with people searching for present after present, for months. But particularly dozens of presents for kids.

I’m not saying Poland is an exception to that, but I can attest that it is significantly less. Mountains less. Continents less. Sorry, I do think it is a difference of continents though. North America vs. Europe. And there are some amazing traditions that Poland upholds. I love how filled with tradition Poland is. Granted, my family celebrated Christmas the same way back home, but the atmosphere is different when it’s the whole of the country doing it with you.

I think the whole of Christmas unravels the week before Christmas. You set up your Christmas tree a week earlier at the earliest. We set ours up a day before Christmas. Family starts arriving. We spend time together. And the cooking begins. Cooking, at least by my observation, is the focus. And I enjoyed every part of it. Traditionally, there are 12 courses on Christmas. Granted, there are many to chose from and the number starts to vary towards people’s preferences. And this isn’t your every Sunday kind of dinner, these are your once-a-year meals. On Christmas. So the process takes days to cook everything, to prepare everything. And it’s a time for the whole family to work together, back to back, all day, kneading out that dough for perogies, making those ears for barszcz, baking pies (we brought in some Canadian desserts to the delight of our family), etcetera. It is backbreaking, time consuming, frustrating work, enjoyable, yet stressful. Can we prepare all this food before 5pm? Christmas day (that is, the twenty-fourth, when the big Christmas dinner is held) was insane. Everyone got up hours earlier, and hauled away. I ate breakfast at ten, and I swear I didn’t sit down or eat again till dinner time. We were all so consumed with cooking that I didn’t even notice I was so hungry until we sat down. And that is how it should be. The satisfaction you feel sitting down, to this amazing dinner, that everyone worked towards, was immeasurable.

Except, as soon as we all sat down, we stood up. Because, one of my favourite things about Christmas, it’s time for skladania zycenia! What this basically means is the exchange of wishes between one another. Everyone has a piece of bread (ceremonial bread, alike to the kind a priest breaks over the alter) and one-on-one exchanges greetings. It’s really special. This isn’t your casual, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, this is saying all the things you always wanted to or wished you could say to the person. Your thoughts and feelings tie in to it, and you heartily wish people the best. I came close to tears a few times, and was really moved by some of the things said to me.

Afterwards, we eat this 12-course dinner. Bloated, there is barely energy for dealing with dessert, let alone opening presents. (Unlike the ritual of North America, presents are opened traditionally after dinner on the twenty-fourth.) But we somehow managed. Kolendy, that is, Christmastime carols are sung; and Poland has some really great songs. Old, traditional, religious, and beautiful. Presents are opened z przyjemnoscia. We thank each other (though when I was a child, I believed the Star brought presents), and get back to the singing, talking, laughing, spending time with each other, and celebrating of Christmas.

I really truly felt happy this Christmas. Previous Christmases were spent stressed out and among a family that wasn’t really together a family. This year it felt real, complete, and joyful and, well, like a Christmas I never really knew.


[1] *thinks a while* partakedness = participation. Traditionwise……..traditionally? Facepalm.


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“Polish has a thousand unnecessary rules.” A statement my sister seconds ago repeated to me; I do not think this is true, but I don’t blame anyone trying to find claims in this either.[1] When I was going about being reintroduced to my family a few weeks earlier and answering their questions of my study of interest, I always replied “Jęnsyk Polski”. (The Polish language.) This was met by many with widened eyes and a tightening of the face. Sometimes some slight teeth gritting. Kind of an ominous you-have-no-idea-what-you’re-getting-yourself-into look. When my seven-year-old third cousin was asked what he thought of that, he furiously shook his head. And his twelve-year-old older brother looked as if he could not imagine something so awful: going to school for just Polish language classes. As they are both in elementary classes they are also starting to experience the extensive grammar rules of Polish they are required to learn and excel in. Students in their class dread Polish class as much as many of us British Columbia kids hated taking the French course taught by a teacher who seemed to only be a lesson ahead of us at a time[2]. So what I’m saying is, it’s difficult. Polish is a really difficult language, one of the hardest. And I’m not just saying that from a confused student’s standpoint. This is in plenty of sources across the internet, murmured among linguists, bragged about by teachers that teach it, and assured by my family who has survived those classes long ago.

So what have I gotten myself into exactly?

I can’t help but like the challenge. I do like a challenge. I’m not all too fond of the work, study, and repetition that comes with it, but it’s the end result I have in mind that I can only hope to achieve one day. Even after the completion of my two-semester courses, I’ll still be a long way’s away. But perhaps a few steps closer and a little more straightened out. I want to be fluent in Polish. Fluent as in, have a large vocabulary, speak without grammatical error, speak confidently, write well, read well, think in Polish. I don’t want to struggle for words, to get conjugations confused and to not understand the hundred or so grammatical terms that were thrown at me today that I’ve never heard in my life. I want Polish to be a breeze. And after each grammar class (I’ve now had three), I feel like I’m just on the edge. On the edge of so much more. There is so much I don’t know, so much I was never aware of, being brought up learning Polish by ear much as one learns an instrument by ear. I don’t know what notes I’m playing, I sometimes don’t know if the note exists, but it sounds right, and I’m going with it. I can’t read music, but I can learn, and the learning process will go a little bit smoother for me.

All my teachers, most of them with decades of experience, seem fairly confident we will walk out a great deal better than when we walked in. My grammar teacher today said we are here to understand the language and to learn to speak without errors. He said this is pleasant to Poles, to all native citizens of an area, to hear a foreigner speak accurately. It’s easier to be around, more pleasant to converse with. A little bit of error, sure they can let that slip, they can correct you. But when you’re tripping over error upon error; it’s just unpleasant. I’m sure everyone has had experiences with a foreigner (or maybe even someone living in the area for years) where you just can’t communicate fully. My teacher said speaking with a foreigner who has correct grammar just has a nice “taste”, in his attempt to explain it. And I think I get it. I’ve talked with many foreigners, the place I come from being quite multicultural, and with many exchange students. The better your English is, the more I enjoy speaking with you[3]. It’s respectable, too, I think.

Wow, is learning a language ever hard though. Here I am having these thoughts, with barely a grasp on the physical language at hand, an immeasurable ocean of knowledge to learn ahead of me. I really do feel like I’ve just breeched the shallow end of the pool[4]. Things are about to get much more complicated. I see the students that are taking their very first language courses in Polish, I hear their small, jumbled sentences, and only feel that much more in awe because they’re starting from base zero. I have some intuitional feeling of what sounds right and wrong. They, however, have nothing. Pretty impressive.

On to a different, mostly unrelated topic: family. Last Sunday I spent the better part of my day at my great aunt’s house (the only close family I have in Krakow), going through our family photos, some of these photos having reached beyond 100 years old, talking about the history of our family, the different connections that there are, the lines and lineages sprawling in different directions. I saw photos where everyone photographed is no longer living except for my aunt and grandma, being the youngest of their generation. I asked about the kids, grandkids, great grandkids of those photographed, where they are, what they’re doing, who what when where why, astonished and fascinated by all this existing information I’ve never heard of. Again, I was left feeling like I was just touching on something. Like I know a tiny fraction of the family I have, and not just in Poland! The wars spread my family apart to all corners of the Earth. India, Africa, Siberia, England, New Zealand, Toronto—wow! I was a little mindblown. A lot of my family that was moved and sent out to different parts of the world returned to Poland afterwards. But some stayed. Some put down their roots. Granted, these relatives are no longer a close as they once were, third cousins and further so. Nevertheless, family.  I want to contact some of them before my Europe trip next year. Get to meet some of them, bring connections back to life[5].

I heard war story after war story, of family being slaughtered, of my great aunt going fifteen years not knowing whether or not her brother was alive, of another great aunt marrying her husband a day before he was situated, of yet another great aunt[6] being involuntarily sent to Siberia, of my great grandparents (teachers) educating youth in secret, of Jews being helped and hidden, and many, many occasions of people having to leave everything behind. And I have family that has lived through all this, that remembers it, that lived in an entirely different place and time than the one they live in now.[7] I was in awe. Again, I feel like I’ve just touched on something, I am on the edge. There is so much more to find out, and I have a whole year to do it. To learn everyone’s names and stories by heart. To record this and track this and remember.

I know the idea is a small one, but I think a family reunion would be something very worthwhile, and I want to arrange it.


[1] I realize a fair portion of this content of this blog is going to be me talking about (sometimes ranting) about the Polish language and my progress in it. Just a further head’s up in case you haven’t gotten that memo yet.

[2] The French Immersion program is great. But taking French as a second language here, a notion pushed on my teachers and parents as hoping their kid will have more prospects to off and a greater selection in universities, is pitiful.

[3] I myself being quite the grammar Nazi at times, find it frustrating to hear grammatical errors in regular use which people can never seem to improve on, no matter how many times corrected.

[4] Pretty sure I’ve used a deep-water metaphor before. My bad.

[5] There’s a whole side of my family, my dead grandpa’s 6 siblings and their relations that isolated my grandpa’s side of the family because of his involvement in Communism.

[6] There are a lot of women in my family.

[7] Those who lived during the second world war—few remain. But I’m also referring to the cold war, another great war that was very real for some and is well remembered.

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