The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 1: The Pierogi Rises

Why did I become Crazy Polish Guy? I’ll try to answer that.

polish storyI’m not sure what my earliest memory of something Polish is. Actually, take that back, it had to have been my mom. She came from Poland and had me, so I’m guessing she is my very first experience with Polska.

I learned Polish as I was learning English, which meant I didn’t learn either language very well as a kid. When you hear half Polish, half English phrases like “Jest pora na sleeping,” you don’t quite develop normal language skills. Over time, English naturally took over and Polish stagnated, but even today I still make silly “Poglish” mistakes. For example, my mom would always call lettuce “salad” or a faucet a “sink.” I picked up on that and still sometimes make those mistakes. I did it at work once, embarrassing myself when I called a faucet a sink.

My first trip to Poland was in 1994 when I was three years old. Too bad I was too young to remember anything substantial because it would have been interesting to see Poland just a few years after the fall of communism. I do remember faint images, though.

I vaguely remember a relative carrying me on his shoulders through the streets of Warsaw. Likewise, I remember we stayed at my mom’s friend’s house in the capital and had to climb out the window in the middle of the night for some reason—maybe a fire alarm? Maybe a rush to get free pączki down the street? I don’t remember.

Fast forward a few years to 1997—my second trip to Poland. I was now in kindergarten, and I remember a little bit more. This is the first time I had to consciously suffer the 4.5 hour voyage from the airport in Warsaw to my family’s home in southern Poland. It took ages! I’ve written about how bad Polish roads are sometimes, but this was 1997, making them even worse.

At that time, Poland was still a relatively poor eastern European country. Its economic growth and entrance into the European Union would come several years later. I remember these images of simplicity and, in some cases, poverty. In particular, I remember an elderly woman in a babushka selling apples in a wooded area somewhere outside Warsaw. She was a stereotypical eastern European lady. As a kid, she reminded me of the witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although I now know she was just a poor old soul trying to make a living in those confusing economic times. I think we ended up buying a few of her apples.

Even though I remember more from this trip than my first one, I was still of the age where I didn’t care about much other than finding some Polish equivalent of Coco Puffs cereal in a Polish grocery store for my daily breakfast. I drove my relatives crazy until we found Nesquick brand cereal with the brown rabbit on the box.

Yes, my days of appreciating all that Poland and Polish culture had to offer were still years away, but the building blocks were there.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy!” Click Here to Read!

 

Jurassic Poland: Polish Dinosaurs Uncovered

Jurassic Park came out when I was a kid, and I remember knowing every single dinosaur name by heart, like many growing up at that time. I always wondered, too, whether a T-Rex once walked in my backyard.

One thought that didn’t cross my mind then, but does now is, “What were Polish dinosaurs like?” You always hear about fossils being discovered in the southwest United States or South America, but never in Poland. Being the crazy Polish guy that I am, I immediately looked into the matter, and here is what I unearthed (pun totally intended).

Cretacious Period map
Map of the world during the Cretaceous period (145 million years ago-65 million years ago). Notice Europe is mostly covered in water.

Not many dinosaur fossils are found in Poland, and there’s a very good reason for that. 65 million years ago and earlier, the earth’s continents looked completely different because the tectonic plates had not yet shifted to their present locations. If you look at the map on the right, you will notice that most of Europe was literally under water back then, including much of Poland. That kind of makes it hard for land animals, doesn’t it? There were, however, some exposed areas, especially in the earlier periods like the Triassic and Jurassic, where dinosaurs and their ancestors did roam, and a number of famous specimens have been discovered.

Oldest Dinosaurs

Several years ago, paleontologists uncovered the oldest evidence of dinosaurs’ ancestors in the Holy Cross Mountains of central Poland. Footprints of a cat-sized creature that walked on four legs and lived 250 million years ago were discovered in a Polish quarry.

These small animals, called Prorotodactylus isp.,  technically predated the dinosaurs, living in between the Permian and Triassic periods. Anatomically speaking, however, scientists do classify them as dinosaurs since they walked with their feet close together and had three large toes in the center of their feet and two smaller ones out to the side.

Nearby, newer tracks of what is believed to be the first dinosaur to walk on two legs were also found. This animal, called  Sphingopus, is estimated to have lived 246 million years ago and was larger than Prorotodactylus isp., its tracks measuring .5 feet (15 centimeters) long.

Silesaurus

Near Opole, in Poland’s Silesia region, many remains have been found of animals from the late Triassic period (230 million years ago). Named Silesaurus, these creatures were small, measuring 1.6 feet (.5 meters) tall and 6.5 feet (2 meters) wide. Like Sphingopus and Prorotodactylus isp, these were pre-dinosaurs, but were anatomically similar to their larger descendents.

Silesaurus walked on all fours, but is believed to have been capable of walking on two feet as well. It was a light and quick dinosaur, especially when young, a trait that helped it escape predators. Experts believe it was either a herbivore or an omnivore.

Silezaur
Although the Silesaurus looks like a predator, it actually most likely ate plants.

This is one of the dinosaurs you will  see in a Polish museum. Skeletal reconstructions and models of the Silesaurus can be found in the Museum of Evolution in Warsaw and the Jurapark in Krasiejow.

 

Polonosuchus

You know that this is a Polish dinosaur because Poland is in its name! Polonosuchus was a four-legged predator that lived during the late Triassic period. It could grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) long and had a very tough hide for defense. The creature could attack larger prey by standing up on its back legs. Overall, it looked kind of like a large crocodile. Polonosuchus continues to be studied, and not a ton of additional information is currently available unfortunately.

Polonosuchus
The Polonosuchus could get up to 20 feet long.

The Wawel Dragon

One of Poland’s most famous legends is that of the Wawel dragon, who supposedly terrorized Krakow centuries ago until being outsmarted and killed by a peasant. This is only a story, of course, but in 2008, remains of a large creature were found in Lisowice, a town in southern Poland.

Paleontologists estimate that the animal lived 200 million years ago and was related to none other than the Tyrannosaurus Rex, who evolved later. Called an Archosaur, this large predator measured 16 to 19 feet (4-5 meters) long, had a skull measuring two feet (60 cm) and weighed nearly a ton. Its size makes it the largest predator to roam Europe, and perhaps the world, during the Late Triassic and early Jurassic periods. In many ways, it was actually a cross between a crocodile and a T-Rex. Click here to read a scientific paper with more details about this fascinating dinosaur.

Smok Wawelski dinozaur
This could be the skeleton of the famous Wawel Dragon.

This Archosaur certainly represents one of Poland’s proudest paleontological finds. When it was discovered in southern Poland, it was immediately nicknamed Smok Wawelski, or Wawel dragon. It is not unreasonable to believe that the famous legend itself may stem from this giant predator. Centuries ago, if a Pole accidentally dug up the skeleton of one of these animals, he or she would have had no idea about dinosaurs. The automatic reaction would have been to call it a dragon, or some other mythological creature. In that sense, when we look at the skull of the Archosaur, we may be staring into the very face of the Wawel dragon.

Overall, Poland continues to provide evidence of some of the oldest creatures to walk the earth, making it a unique spot on the planet for studying how dinosaurs evolved. In that sense, you could say that Poland is where dinosaurs began.

A Tribute to Polish Moms

Polska matka“Make sure to cover your throat with your collar so you don’t catch a cold!” advised my mother as I opened the door to go outside some years back.

It was 68 degrees and sunny.

Still, the light wind was, in Mamusia’s eyes, a credible threat to my health, so I was forced to zip up. Anyone who grew up with a  Polish mother or grandmother knows how much importance they place on “chronienia gardła” (protecting your throat).

It’s one example (out of many) of how paranoid our Polish mothers can be. But they do it because they love us. Although in these moments we may think that they are over-reacting and can’t handle a little cold, or whatever the situation may be, we should remember how strong they truly are.

Nearly every generation of Polish mothers alive today has experienced struggles and trials that few can match.

It all begins with that legendary World War II generation. Sadly, the mothers from that era are quickly leaving us, but some remain to tell their story. In their youth, they dealt with terror, famine, violence, and death as the Nazis and Soviets ripped Poland to shreds in their campaigns of evil. This generation went through hell and back. My late Polish grandmother was among them. The experience doubtless shook her to the core, but it also made her  appreciative of every little thing after the war—because it was a gift from God. These women were, and are, mentally invincible and can handle anything life throws at them. If your mother is one of these, talk to her, learn her story—she’s part of the greatest generation. Ona jest kwiatem z tamtych lat.

The next generation of Polish mothers grew up in the post-war era. Although they didn’t have to deal with the horrors of war, a repressive, inefficient Polish government under Soviet influence made daily life a struggle.

It was during this time that my own mom came of age. She often speaks of how there was a total lack of basic commodities, such as toilet paper. Meat shortages meant waiting in line for hours just to get a slice of ham, and it sometimes turned out that after waiting all that time, the store ran out and you went home empty-handed anyway! I remember my mom also saying that you couldn’t even mildly criticize the government, or you risked getting arrested.

Aside from experiencing repression, this generation of Polish mothers sought to do something about it. Some joined the Polish Solidarity movement to protest the communist regime. It was there that they experienced the government’s full wrath during the period of martial law from 1981 to 1983. Many, like my mom, made the trip to the United States, often by themselves, in search of greater liberty and opportunity. Once here, they often had to work their way up from the bottom, taking any number of factory or cleaning jobs. It was a rugged life. It was an uncertain life. But they made it. Many eventually started families and are now nearing retirement. They pass on the values of hard work and persistence to their kids because they love them and want them to have an easier, more straightforward life (It’s probably why I wasn’t allowed to get B’s in school growing up).

Finally, there is the youngest generation of Polish mothers. These are new moms. Fortunately, they didn’t have to grow up during wartime or government repression. However, I would argue that they have to contend with an unprecedented period of flux. Poland is rapidly changing. Switching from communism to capitalism in 25 years, along with joining the European Union, opened many opportunities for young Poles, who must now navigate this new, globalist culture.

Although many now remain in Poland, others continue to emigrate to western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Oftentimes, families are split apart as one parent works abroad, and the other stays home with the kids. This takes a new degree of mental strength and patience that, as we have seen, is second nature to Poles.

So on this Mother’s Day, I encourage you to learn your Polish mother’s story. I guarantee she has one, and it’s probably awesome. If nothing else, it may reveal why she is the way she is. See, to her, you are the fruit of all her struggles, the capstone of her life. You are the proof that she made it, that all the hardships she experienced weren’t for nothing, but rather, that they made your existence possible. To your Polish mother (and really any mother), you are the holy of holies, so treat her exceptionally on this Mother’s Day.

polish mother

The Top 5 Greatest Polish Animals

Poland, in addition to having beautiful cities and landscapes, has no shortage of wildlife. The eastern part of the country still contains primeval areas such as Białowieża forest, that are home to a number of interesting critters.

Here’s my pick for the top 5 greatest Polish animals:

The grey wolf looking scary.
The grey wolf looking scary.

5. Grey wolf

Deep in the Polish Carpathian Mountains resides one of the largest greywolf populations remaining in Europe. Between 900 and 1,000 of these carnivorous canines roam Poland’s wooded areas in the country’s eastern and southern portions.

Grey wolves are about three to four feet long (113-134 cm) from head to tail, and they hunt anything from larger mammals to smaller amphibians. They travel in packs, which are led by an alpha male and his female—only that alpha couple is allowed to mate and produce baby wolves.

For decades, wolves roamed the Polish countryside, killing domestic farm animals and cattle. As in other European countries, they became the stuff of legend, giving rise to werewolf lore. As a result, Polish farmers began killing them, and by the 1970s, there were only about 70 wolves in the entire country. Since then, Poland has made it a priority to protect its wolves. In 1998, the Polish government officially made it illegal to kill wolves in Poland, and their numbers have dramatically  increased.

Isn't he cute?
Isn’t he cute?

4. European Hedgehog:

Awww, how cute. It’s a little hedgehog. Don’t pet him, though, unless you want to get a 3 cm spike lodged in your hand. These common Polish critters live in parks, gardens and fields during the spring and summer. During the winter they hibernate.

You wouldn’t think it, but hedgehogs are speedy climbers, runners and even swimmers. You won’t see them during the day, though, as they are mostly active at night. Among their favorite meals are snails and fruit, mmmmm.

The Poles have recognized the hedgehog’s significance in their country through an odd comic book series called George the Hedgehog (Jeż Jerzy).

Yeah, these wild pigs are digging for crap right in  a Polish town.
Yeah, these wild pigs are digging for feces right in a Polish town.

3. Wild Boar

The wild boar is the white-tailed deer of Poland. It’s everywhere. Although mostly living in forests, at one point 80 boars were found running through a Polish town! In fact, the wild boar population has exploded so much, that the Polish government is encouraging people to hunt the 300,000 boars living in the country. Their numbers have increased by 150 percent in 10 years!

Ancestors of the domesticated pig, wild boars travel in herds of about 20. Boars can get up to 3 feet long (100 cm) and can weigh up to 380 Ibs (175 kg). They will eat anything from leaves, to berries, to birds, to, literally feces. Don’t mess with them either, as they can do some serious damage with their tusks, especially when protecting their young.

Overall, these aren’t the friendliest animals. They don’t have much class, and their behavior is quite piggish.

Poles love their storks, and storks love their Poles.
Poles love their storks, and storks love their Poles.

2. White Stork:

The white stork is an integral part not only of Polish wildlife, but of its culture. Standing three feet tall (91 cm) with a wingspan of about seven feet (213 cm), these impressive birds arrive in Poland each spring after wintering in Africa. They build gigantic nests made of twigs, branches, sticks and grass atop tall objects such as trees, rooftops and telephone poles—these nests are often six feet in diameter (182 cm), nine feet deep (274 cm) and can weigh several tons! Faithful birds, white storks typically stay with one mate during the breeding season, and a female usually lays three to five eggs.

Culturally, the white stork has had a loving relationship with the Poles for centuries. In the old days, Polish villagers believed that humans and storks were kindred spirits, and the utmost respect was paid to the birds. Everything was done to entice a stork to nest on your rooftop because it would supposedly bring good luck. Oftentimes, storks would return to the same village year after year, strengthening the belief that they are intelligent and human-like. Sadly, the white stork population has gradually been declining, spurring increased efforts to protect the birds in Poland.

1. European Bison:

Żubr
Don’t mess with me, fool

The bison is Poland’s resident tough guy, and this is why he’s number one. This is the largest animal on the European continent, standing six feet tall (183 cm), nine feet long (274 cm) and weighing around 2,000 Ibs (1,000 kg). Bison have giant stomachs that can hold 26 gallons of food (100 liters), so they spend the vast majority of their time eating and digesting massive amounts of bushes and tree bark.

This bison, found in the Białowieża forest, is one of the last links to Europe’s ancient, natural past. The forest is a UNESCO heritage sight, largely because these majestic creatures still roam there, protected by the most stringent Polish conservation laws. During the early 20th century, bison were nearly hunted to extinction by the Germans and Russians, especially during World War I. In fact, only 54 bison remained by 1924. Since then, Poland has taken great pains to reintroduce bison into the wild through breeding initiatives, and their numbers have increased.

Don’t mess with a bison. Although they are typically indifferent to humans, they can be aggressive. No one has ever successfully domesticated  one of these animals. They own the forests, and they know it. Nevertheless, they have become a major tourist attraction in Poland, with visitors coming from all over to witness them in their natural habitat. It’s definitely considered one of the “things to do” when visiting Poland.

The Best Things About Poland: Episode II

It’s time to conclude my two-part series on the best things about Poland (Check out episode one here). Like I said two weeks ago, this could be a 10-part series, but there’s so many other wonderful topics to write about. If enough of you comment on this one, though, I won’t be able to help myself. Here it goes…

The Language

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters. Notice the 3 types of “z.”

Polish is not a language for the faint of heart. If your native tongue is English, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most difficult languages you can possibly learn. With seven grammatical cases, a boatload of various word-endings and three versions of the letter “z,” it will unleash hell on your brain.

So why is it so great? I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m good enough to begin realizing its beauty. Unlike German, which sounds like yelling, or French, which sounds very nasally, Polish sounds soft, fluid and innocent. I especially become entranced whenever I hear Polish women speak it on TV, the radio or in person—it’s such a delicate and soothing collection of syllables.

If you ever read the Polish literary masters—Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Kochanowski—even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll definitely see how beautifully the language flows from the page. It makes learning it, even a little bit, worth it.

The Music

When it comes to music, Poland has so much to offer. For traditionalists, there are plenty of folk songs that will whisk you away to old Poland with their violin and accordion sounds. Folk fans should check out Rokiczanka and Brathanki. There is also, of course, Polka music and the Polish-favorite “Disco Polo.”

In the early twentieth century, tango was big in Poland. When you listen to these old songs, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an old café or saloon in pre-war Warsaw or Kraków. Check out Sława Przybylska for an example.

For rock and pop fans, Poland has a ton of music from the 1960s through today. Lady Pank, Wilki, Elektryczne Gitary, Perfect, Marek Grechuta, Gosia Andrzejewicz, Ewa Farna, and Urszula are just some examples. I purposely didn’t add hyper links to all those names—stay tuned to my blog for much more on Polish music in the near future.

Oh, just don’t listen to Polish rap. It sucks.

 

Soup

Żur
Polish Żur soup.

Ok, soup isn’t just Polish, but it definitely plays a big part in Polish life. I remember visiting my grandmother in Poland during my childhood. After the long, tiring, transatlantic voyage from the U.S. to Poland, and the additional journey from the airport to my grandma’s house, the first thing she greeted us with was a hug and kiss. The second, a bowl of hot soup. So soup plays a pivotal role in my conception of Poland.

Traditionally, soup is the first course in a Polish meal. From rosół, to tomato soup, to żur, Poland has no shortage of belly-filling, heart-warming soups. Polish soups are especially delicious and gratifying when you’re sick—a spoonful of warm vegetable, chicken and broth can often provide relief from the worst colds or flu.

Customs

Slavic beliefs
An imaginary painting of Poland’s Slavic origins.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about Polish traditions and customs—from Wigilia to Zaduszki—and there is much more to come on that front. The reason I can write so much is that Poland offers a seemingly infinite supply of intriguing cultural and religious practices.

Remember, before Poland became Catholic in 966 AD, it adhered to the ancient Slavic beliefs. Like many pagan peoples, the ancient Poles worshiped nature and believed in numerous supernatural entities. With the arrival of Catholicism, many of these beliefs were eliminated, but many were absorbed. This is why, even today, many Polish traditions are loaded with superstitions.

Aside from that, each region in Poland has its own customs—from the Górale in the southern mountains, to the Kashuby of the northern shores—you will find a rainbow of local costumes, dances and dialects across Poland. It’s a “melting pot” in its own right.

The Polish National Anthem (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego)

Poland has not yet perished. Those lines begin the Polish national anthem. They symbolize the Polish people’s undying hope and strong desire to preserve their identity. Written in 1797, just two years after Poland had been partitioned and erased from the map of Europe, this anthem was, from its inception, a statement that the Poles weren’t just going to lie down and die. As we have seen, there are just too many great things about the Polish nation for that to happen. Generations of Poles have fought and died to protect the idea of Poland, of its customs, food, music, language and people—it’s this Polish spirit that is embodied in the national anthem, making it perhaps the greatest thing about Poland.