by Peggy Raggio (Poland 1991–92)
First published on the blog of PeaceCorpsWriters.org on February 14, 2006
ON DECEMBER 22, 1991, we took a smelly bus from Suwalki to Warsaw. Marzena, another teacher and I chatted and snacked on sandwiches and hot tea as we rode south for seven hours, through the chill and snowy countryside of Northern Poland. We saw farmers guiding their furry plow horses and wagons through the streets, loaded with silver milk jugs, cabbages and crates of chickens. A long-legged stork landed on her nest on the roof of a farmhouse. After a booster shot at the Peace Corps office in Warsaw, I rode a streetcar to the Marriott Hotel in the center of town for coffee (kawa pronounced “kava”). Violins and a grand piano played on a balcony over the lobby that gleamed festively with bird of paradise in blue and gold jardinières, plush oriental rugs and squishy sofas. PC had adopted the hotel; where we gossiped with friends and called home to the States — $5.00 for five minutes. The American-feel of that gorgeous hotel, in a strange land, soothed our homesickness.
“Poland 3,” as we were called, had arrived in June 1991 to teach English. Two groups had preceded us to teach business and the environment. We lived with host families while we attended school for teacher training, Polish language and history. Eva Orlowski, husband Kazik and the children had made me feel at home in Milanowik. The house was a two-story brick in a quiet, wooded area. Kazik had built it soon after the war; a little farm in the backyard. Eva sold produce and Kazik worked in a tractor factory. They didn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate with sign language, stick drawings and my stumbling Polish. Eva and I became great friends and sang songs from old movies on long walks in the woods. She had been a little girl when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and cried when she spoke of the horror.
About 125 of us graduated at the end of August as Peace Corps Volunteers. We were feted at a wild party and the next day went to schools all over the country to teach. I was excited to finally be on my way. I was sent to Suwalki in the Lakes District, N.E. corner of Poland. It’s called the Siberia of Poland, because of its proximity to the North Pole. It is 10 degrees below zero in the winter and dark at 3:00 P.M., a shock to me after sunny California.
Evidence of the Soviet 44-year occupation after WWII was everywhere. The air, rivers and water polluted and towns still in need of attention from the devastation of war. There were many empty store shelves because the best food had been shipped to Russia. In 1988 the communists were forced to leave when the brave workers at the Gadnsk shipyards staged uprisings. The economy was terrible and most residents were out of work. Speaking English would help them move from a Third World country into the World Market.
I lived in a one-room cozy apartment inside a music school and taught other subjects besides English, to 48 freshmen in the college next door. They all passed their exams and we had given the Director, Elzbieta, and staff an art show and concert. When Eva invited me for Christmas I was ready for
some R & R.
Monday, the 23rd of December 1991, I boarded the kolega (the local commuter train) in Warsaw to visit them. I stopped at a kiosk and got Eva five flowers wrapped in cellophane, tied with a red ribbon. It’s a tradition in Poland that when you visit you take odd numbers of flowers, never even. I arrived at the Orlowski’s in the afternoon to warm hugs and kisses. I felt so welcome.
The house smelled like cabbage — Eva’s bigos (sauerkraut stew) — and pine needles from the Christmas tree. Eva and I walked to the market for fish and bread. Later we went to visit Kazik’s sister, Juanita, and her family and drank herbata which is strong tea, in small glasses with a spoon resting on the top for sugar. We ate cakes and tarts. You do not refuse food in Poland. I helped Eva’s granddaughter, Justina, ten years old, trim the small tree with many items handed down from her ancestors: silver angels, animals and religious icons (the country is predominantly Catholic). Eva cooked a rich dessert with cream and fruit.
Tuesday, the 24th is Wigilia (Christmas Eve). The cooking speeded up. Eva cooked a long menu of courses. She had gone into the woods at 5:00 A.M. to pick mushrooms (grzyby pronounced “gre-jibby”).
I called her “Grzyby Eva” which made her laugh. Kazik took me on a tour of the basement storeroom. It smelled musty like a cave and was spooky down there with light bulbs on electric cords swinging from the ceiling. The shelves were loaded with: jars of jam, potatoes, peas, corn and fruit. There were rabbits, fish and chickens in a freezer. Barrels of pickles reminded me of the country stores in Pennsylvania when I was a kid. Kazik laughed at my astounded expression.
PCVs were warned not to eat the fish from the polluted rivers. The Poles ignored the danger. Eva cut up a large carp in sections. She put the raw fish (ryby) across a platter with the head at the top, carrot and lemon slices in between the sections to look like ribs or bones. She put the tail (ogon) at the end, sprinkled parsley over it, peas around the edges. Then poured hot lemon gelatin all over it. This went into the fridge to become a mold. The salad (sa-wat-ka) was apples, hard- boiled eggs, peas, carrots, onions, pickles on lettuce with gobs of mayonnaise on top. A second salad was shredded cabbage and spices. Eva would not let me cook, but I helped her get ready. We put up a long table in the living room with an embroidered tablecloth made by Eva’s great grandmother.
The immediate family ate dinner together Christmas Eve: eldest son, Robi, wife Malgosia, their daughter Justina, youngest son Hubik, wife Monica and her father, Tata. Everyone stood up. Representing a Polish blessing we each broke a piece of paper-thin wafer and passed it around. They toasted with vodka (my choice — apple cider) and we exchanged gifts. Eva loved my ceramic-mushroom candleholder. I gave gifts to the rest of the family and received fun presents from them. While the Poles drank vodka and got very loud, we all ate the huge meal and told stories. Two people could speak English. It was a loving evening meal and I enjoyed it so much.
At midnight Eva and I bundled up and walked five blocks to the Catholic Church down the dark country road. There was no moon or streetlights and it was cold as a bear’s ice-lair. I was glad I had found fur-lined boots in Bialystok. The bright stars in the black sky made me think of the story of the star shining over the manger so long ago. We arrived late and had to stand and I froze. There was no heat in the church and no cheer as the greedy Nazis had stolen all the ancient gold icons and paintings. The German government was slowly returning the ones they could find. We sang the lovely Polish carols. I missed my family and tried not to cry. Eva was always sensitive to my feelings. We walked down the middle of the silent dirt road and I was shivering. Eva took hold of my arm and began to sing “Silent Night” in Polish with her contralto voice; I joined in singing soprano and we sang all the way back. I thought it had been a joyful Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day — 7:00 A.M.— Andrew and Rose picked Eva up and they went to the cemetery where their mama was buried to put flowers on the grave. Eva cooked breakfast for Justina and me; kielbasa, eggs and fruit. About 1:00 P.M., when the rest of the family came, Eva was slaving away in her little kitchen, Justina was playing her xylophone and Kazik and I were enjoying a soccor meet from England on their TV (televisor) and cheered when England scored. Justina let everyone in. It was quite a mob with Eva’s cousins, Kazik’s mama, Hanjia — 80 years old; twenty people in all, carrying gifts and flowers; white lilacs, roses, poinsettias and freesia. We sat down at the table for the feast. First we ate fried leftover carp and szledz, a raw fish like herring, with onions and lemons and bowls of cream soup (zupa); then the huge, black mushrooms Eva had sautéed in oil. Eva had baked two chickens (kurcheki), a corn and pineapple salad with gobs of mayonnaise, a spicy/salty cabbage dish, tiny dishes of noodles,peas and carrots. I helped Eva put food on large platters: sliced meats, bread (cleb), a rabbit loaf, ground and baked in a pan like a meatloaf. “It keeps for months,” Eva told me. The Poles drank vodka and brandy and celebrated. Eva’s brother, Woichek, his daughter Kathy and I drank strawberry juice and sang songs. For dessert there were oranges (pomorancze) from Turkey, hazelnuts, and Eva had baked a loaf cake with powdered sugar on top. We drank sweet, black coffee and tea, poppy seed cakes and macaroons. Each course was served with fanfare. I never ate so much in my life. I poured Eva into bed under her duvet-covered comforter and turned out the tree lights.
December 26th in the morning, after hugs and thanks, with a light snow falling Eva’s son Hubik and Monika drove me to the Warsaw station. I took a five-hour train ride to historic Krakow. The snow was intense and I had a difficult time finding the Old Polonia Hotel in the dark. Finally in my heated room with the silent snow falling outside, I nestled under a warm duvet and fell asleep. The next day, in a blinding blizzard, I took a bus with others to the town of Oswiecim (German word is Auschwitz) and walked five blocks to the former death camp and across the infamous train tracks into the compound. With tears streaming down my face, I toured the Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp, now a Museum.
On December 28th, because of the miserable weather, I returned to my apartment in Suwalki to write up my lesson plans for the next semester. The weather had indeed been cold, but my Christmas with Eva had been loving and so warm. I was so thankful I had been to a true Polish Christmas; an experience I knew I would never forget.