Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Australia is in the southern hemisphere so for us Christmas is always in the middle of summer but we are bombarded by cultural references to snow at Christmas at high latitudes in the northern hemisphere. I suppose that most Australians dream of one day experiencing a white Christmas. Last Wednesday we had beautiful snow in Trondheim and it seemed hopeful but then we travelled to Poland and experienced a weird heat wave with +12C maximum temperature and not even a hint of snow. After enduring rapidly shortening days, with just 4 hours of daylight on the solstice in Trondheim and no direct sunlight, we reveled in the heat and hours of sunshine in Poland.
We spent 4 days staying with my grandfather’s relatives in the village where he grew up in southern Poland. One of my cousins is fluent in English and we stay in her home whenever we visit. She is a wonderful host who predicts our every need. My aunts prepared traditional Polish Christmas meals for us, based on vegetables and fruit they grew and preserved themselves and wild mushrooms and berries they picked in the neighboring forest. Lunch is served at around 2pm beginning with a traditional soup; usually a thin soup served over pasta. It caused consternation among my aunts that my husband and I didn’t eat the pasta and drew a lot of muttering under the breath in Polish about how can you eat a thin soup on it’s own. The soups were yummy! Second course was usually fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mashed beetroot and pickled vegetables. To drink was a compote of preserved apples or cherries from their orchards.
On Christmas Eve we joined about 20 family members to enjoy the traditional Christmas feast. We started with the Lord’s prayer recited by my aunt in Polish (I’m not a believer and our children don’t have a faith so we watched) then each of us was handed a thin white wafer (opłatek) the size of a playing card. Everyone in the room took turns to wish good health, long life and prosperity individually with everyone else in the room. The person speaking broke a small fragment of the other person’s wafer with each blessing and ate that fragment of wafer. In this way, everyone in the family is able to renew their family bonds and heal the hurts of the previous year. My cousin helped by translating for us.
After the opłatki ritual we sat down for the traditional Lenten feast of 12 dishes (no flesh other than fish). The dishes included 3 different and delicious soups, fried fish and wonderful mushroom and sour cabbage pierogi, all served with compote and finished off with cakes. It was a lovely meal and my aunts did a great job of catering for so many people. Our children enjoyed playing with their cousins and managed to stay up until after 10pm.
Twice our children went horse riding through the forest, organised by my cousin through a nearby stable. Our 6 year old son was fearless on the horse and on the second ride was a bit complacent. By contrast our daughter was very nervous and gripped the saddle tightly on the first day and then was more confident on the second day. Both enjoyed it and we look forward to arranging lessons for them next time we visit.
We visited 2 playgrounds in the village, looked at the Christmas trees in the beautiful big catholic church and visited the nearby town. In the town we looked at the new monument to the Katyn massacres of Polish officers, doctors, police, intelligentsia and other important people, about 22000 in total, that was ordered by Stalin. My great grandfather disappeared in early 1940 and my family learnt years later that he had been executed in Ostaszkow, as part of the Katyn massacres.
We were invited to meals in the homes of two of my cousins and we were served a staggering array of dishes, all beautifully prepared and more modern and less heavy than the traditional cuisine.
At all meals vodka and other spirits made prominent appearances after we had eaten. On our first afternoon, my uncles said that on our last visit we had drunk vodka together and they had gotten more drunk than me. They said that I have a ‘strong head’. We celebrated our return by sharing 2 bottles of vodka. That night and the next morning I had a terrible headache until some purging removed the poison from my system. Over the next 3 days I only sipped drinks when a toast was called. I have decided that after a few binge drinking sessions with colleagues in Trondheim this winter and then the Polish episode that I mustn’t binge drink again. Time, health and brain cells are too precious.
We had a lovely time with my Polish family. Our children loved playing with their cousins, we all enjoyed the warmth and sunshine, we ate well and we were surrounded by love.