A Tale of Two Countries: Live From the Polish Constitution Day Parade

polacy
Poles and Americans march together at the 124th annual Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago.

Many people don’t think of Poland when it comes to important historical events. And yet, today, May 3, 2015 marks the 224th anniversary of the second-oldest constitution in the world—the Polish Constitution of 1791. Its emphasis on achieving more equal rights and protections under the law for all Poles preceded that of any other country, except for the United States. It’s here that we begin to see that Poland and the U.S. share a special connection, rooted in both countries’ forward-thinking (for the time) beliefs that people aren’t necessarily just subjects of some king, but citizens of a free nation.

parade7

This special connection between Poland and the United States has persisted throughout the centuries and comes to light especially strong every May 3rd during the Polish Constitution Day parade in Chicago. For the past 124 years, Poles, Polish Americans and even Americans with no Polish background have marched together  in a sign of multi-ethnic unity and national pride.

polish sickle

I have heard some Poles say that this unity and pride displayed in Chicago during the May 3rd festivities  surpasses that found even in Poland. How can that be? How can Poles thousands of miles away be just as, if not more, patriotic than those in native Poland?

Truth is, the farther you are from home, the more you have to hang onto that patriotism if you want it to survive. It’s why every time I go to Poland, I like wearing American shirts, whereas here I hardly ever do. In Poland, it’s taken for granted that you are a Pole; in America it’s taken for granted that you are American.  People like to emphasize their uniqueness because we all want to be different and stand out. In Chicago, the Polish-American community sticks tightly together, and when it’s time to come out in force, they don’t disappoint.

Sweet Ride
Sweet Ride

That’s part of it—the other part is that there really is a special connection between the U.S. and Poland. We are cut from the same tree—the liberty tree. The Polish constitution  was miles ahead of the rest of Europe. Even as early as the 16th century, Poland was already experimenting with more equal forms of government in the “Noble’s Democracy.” Poles and Americans think alike, and we therefore support each other, especially on May 3rd, which symbolizes the best of what we have in common.

I really felt wonderful walking through the streets of the Windy City fully decked out in my Polish gear. It instilled pride knowing that America’s third largest city was Polish for a day. A sea of red and white flooded Dearborn Street, and I never had to walk long to bump into another proud Pole.

Trzeciego Maja

One particular moment during the parade epitomized the Poles’ unmatched persistence. As the parade floats were crossing under a set of train tracks, some were too high and couldn’t fit. A few floats actually bumped into the tracks and were partially ruined. When it came to a float containing a large cutout of a Jesus figure, the Poles were not going to allow it to slam into the tracks. Slightly bending the figure, the people on the float managed to fit Jesus through the rail tracks as the crowd thunderously applauded and cheered. It was a funny little moment, but it symbolized how the Poles always find a way. Soon after the Polish constitution was ratified in 1791, Poland was conquered and partitioned by outside powers. Many swore then that Poland would rise again, and the constitution would not have been drafted for nothing. And so it happened…the Poles somehow found a way.

Jesus made it under the tracks!!!
Jesus made it under the tracks!!!

 

Get Eggs-cited With Pisanki

polskie pisanki
Polish pisanki

One of Poland’s most beautiful Easter traditions is pisanki, or the ornamentation of eggs. Although many of us are familiar with egg dyeing, true Polish pisanki is an art form that takes specific knowledge and practice to master. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries in Poland. The oldest pisanki were discovered in Ostrówek and date back to the tenth century.

Before getting into these art forms (yes, there’s more than one way to decorate an egg), I’d like to share with you the significance of eggs in Polish culture. As usual, there’s no shortage of beliefs and superstitions that Poles used to have about eggs.

Eggs were believed to represent the beginning of spring, as they are a source of new life. Just as a chick hatches from the shell of an egg, the renewed earth hatches from the shell of winter. It’s an idea that has impacted not only Polish culture, but cultures the world over.

Because the egg was associated with new life, it helped spawn the following superstitions:

  • When sowing grain, farmers would carry an egg or throw egg shells into the field to supposedly increase the crop yield.
  • Eggs were ground up and fed to farm animals with the belief that they would foster their good health. Ironically, this included feeding eggs to chickens.
  • After boiling eggs, the water was said to have healing powers. Women would actually wash themselves in that eggy water (ewwww).
  • Some Polish girls would wear eggs in their breasts…yeah. The idea was that a boy would grab her, remove the egg, and then she would marry him. Kinky?
  • Eggs were included in most wedding foods to ensure that the couple would successfully reproduce.
  • Poles would “feed” eggs to the dead by placing them on the grave-site. This ancient pagan practice rested on the belief that the happy zombies would ensure that the crops grew well under the earth.

Pisanki were used in many of the above superstitions, but they are most associated with Easter. After all, Easter symbolizes new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and was/is a monumental celebration in Roman Catholic Poland. The word “pisanki” actually comes from the word “pisać” which mean “to write” in Polish. It’s basically writing on eggs.

Here are the basic types of pisanki:

Kraszanki: These are eggs dyed in a single color by being boiled in any number of foodstuffs. Onion skins are often used as a dye, as they can produce colors like brown and gold. Beet juice can produce pink, and red cabbage, interestingly, creates a blue color.

Drapanki
Drapanki

Skrobanki: Just like with Kraszanki, Skrobanki, or drapanki, are first dyed a single color. Afterward, a sharp tool is used to scratch designs onto the egg. As you can imagine, this is a delicate art, requiring patience and a steady hand. The final product is as intricate as it is beautiful.

Batykowane: This type uses heated beeswax to create designs on an egg. After applying the beesewax with a pin (or other sharp object) and then dying the egg, the wax is removed, revealing the beautiful designs. Click here for a step by step guide to decorating an egg with beeswax.

Nalepianki: Nalepiać means “to stick” in Polish, and this style of pisanki refers to the decoration of eggs with colorful sheets of paper. This particular style originated in the Krakow area.

Pisanki is a beautiful tradition and, like with any art, there’s no particular “right” way to do it. Different regions of Poland developed different ways to express themselves in decorating their Easter eggs. Once the eggs are decorated, they are blessed at church during Święconka, or the blessing of the Easter baskets. Following this, they are usually eaten at Easter breakfast. And so, ultimately, the life-giving eggs are consumed with the hope that we will all be reborn during the Easter Season.

 

 

The Best Things About Poland: Episode I

As a guy who is crazy about Poland, I think there are many great things about it. In fact, I could fill 10 blog posts on the topic. But to spare you from monotony, I will only write a couple articles on the absolute BEST things. Here’s part one. Like with all my lists, no particular order:

 

The Land:

Poland's beautiful Tatra Mountains
Poland’s beautiful Tatra Mountains

Poland has a little bit of everything when it comes to geography. The name Poland derives from the Polish word for field (pole), and, indeed, the countryside is littered with fields and farms. But that’s not all.

In the south, you will find several mountain ranges. Chief among these are the Tatra Mountains, which form the border between Poland and Slovakia. Skiers and hikers flock here in the winter and summer from across Europe.

In the north, you will find lots of water. The Masurian Lakes region contains over 2,000 lakes, perfect for water sports, while the Baltic Sea offers beaches and a watery gateway to the rest of the world. Of course, many rivers meander through Poland, the largest of which is the famous Vistula (Wisła) River.

European bison in Poland's eastern forests.
European bison in Poland’s eastern forests.

Finally, the mysterious, primeval forests of the east are bound to captivate the naturist, as well as the romantic. One of the largest is the Białowieża Forest. It’s home to many European bison. I’ve never been there, but it’s one of the top places I still want to visit.

 

 

 

 


Castles:

I don’t care if you hate history. If you don’t think castles are cool, there’s something wrong with you. Even if you don’t care about what happened there long ago, you can at least admire the beautiful construction and architecture.

Wawel Castle in Krakow
Wawel Castle in Krakow

Poland is dotted with beautiful castles that once belonged to numerous kings, queens and nobles. Today, most of them have been restored and are absolutely must-see attractions. Wawel Castle in Kraków, Malbork Castle, the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Łańcut Palace….these are just some of the most famous.

The ruins of Ogrodzieniec  Castle.
The ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle.

Interesting too are the ruined castles. Deserted and forgotten, these castles are the relics of a foregone era. Untouched since their abandonment, they stand as mysterious, ghostly reminders of what was—a romanticist’s dream come true. You just have to be careful. Neglected for ages, these castles often have holes in the floors and unsupported railings. So be sure not to die if you visit them.

 

Krówki

The amazing Krówki!
The amazing Krówki!

This should have made the upcoming post, The Greatest Polish Snacks Part II. But these chocolates are so good that not only are they among the greatest Polish snacks, they are one of the best things about Poland in general.

Krówki are chocolate fudge, toffee candies produced in Poland since before World War II and doubtless a principle cause of why the Germans and Russians wanted to invade so badly.

The chocolate’s outside shell quickly and delicately melts in your mouth, releasing the soft, chewy toffee inside. Before you know it, the heaven-sent delicacy has completely dissolved in your mouth and you want another one. So you run to the nearest Polish store to buy another pack. I attribute Poland’s recent economic growth solely to the existence of Krówki.

 

 

The Polish Spirit

The brave Polish resistance during World War II.
The brave Polish resistance during World War II.

Whenever idiots make fun of Poland getting conquered during World War II, I always tell them this: Poland lasted a month against BOTH Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. France, supposedly a powerful western European nation at the time, lasted about a month and a week against ONLY Nazi Germany. There is something to be said about the undying Polish spirit.

Let’s face it, Poland has been screwed over countless times throughout history. Each time, though, it didn’t go down without waging a bitter fight to the end. Even when it lost, it didn’t lose. After Poland fell during World War II, many Poles escaped and continued fighting on other fronts, not to mention the Polish resistance that kept fighting back home.

The fact that Poland exists today is a true testament to the Pole’s strong national pride and independent spirit.

Check out the best things about Poland part II here!

Andrzejki: Crazy Polish Love Superstitions for Women

She loves me, she loves me not; she loves me, she loves me not…Even in today’s digital age, superstitions abound when it comes to finding love.

A quick Google search will yield many of them. One says that girls who don’t  shave their legs will more quickly find a mate (disregard this one, ladies). Another superstition  claims that if you swallow a chicken’s heart whole, you can marry anyone you want (no, I have no freaking clue what the connection is).

These myths and superstitions about finding love exist in every culture and are nothing new. Poland certainly has no shortage of them, although many have, thankfully, fallen out of practice.

The last week of November, known as “Andrzejki,” was a big deal in old Poland when young Polish women would do a ton of strange things to find out about their future love lives.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

On November 29, a Polish maiden would place two mirrors in front of her face in a darkened room. In between the mirrors, she would place a candle. The girl would then stare deeply at the lighted candle while counting backwards from 24. While staring, she had to concentrate on seeing her future husband. After reaching zero, she would turn to the darkest corner and supposedly see her future husband in the shadows. Creepy factor: 10.

It reminds me of one of these optical illusions.

Release the Hounds

Hungry-DogA bunch of Polish girls would get together and bake loaf cakes. Each girl would pick a cake and mark it, identifying it as her own. After placing the cakes on a bench, they would release a starving dog. Whichever cake the dog grabbed first, that girl would be the first to marry. Honestly, I feel sorry for the poor dog who had to starve just to boost some chick’s ego.

The Goose Knows Best

angry goose
Polish Matchmaker

Once again, an innocent animal became a fortune-telling tool for a bunch of single Polish chicks. The girls would blindfold a goose. They would then stand in a closed circle, holding hands. After setting the blindfolded animal free, they would wait in earnest to see which girl it would approach first—that girl would be the first to marry. They must have been really desperate to let a goose decide their love lives.

Choose Wisely

An older woman would place three items under three plates on a table: a leaf from the rue plant, a piece of lace, and a special hat called a “czepek.” Three young women would then enter the kitchen and pick a plate:

Picking the plate with the hat underneath meant you would be married soon.

Picking the plate with the lace underneath meant you would become a nun.

Picking the plate with the rue plant underneath meant eternal spinsterhood.

Weird stuff. I know. The guys did stuff like this from time to time too, but nothing as strange as what I described above. But who knows, maybe it worked. So ladies, maybe try one of these crazy superstitions this week. Just please make sure no animals are harmed in the process!

An American’s Take on Polish Independence Day

SONY DSCHappy Polish Independence Day!  98 years ago, Poland transformed from a repressed, war-torn territory into a proud and unified nation. But Poland’s independence on November 11, 1918 was just part of a larger story.

On that same day, World War I officially ended when an armistice was signed between the allied and central powers. As the guns quieted down across Europe, the celebratory cries of millions of newly-liberated people rang out.

The age of empires was dead. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia crumbled into ruin, allowing the people whose voices and cultures they had suppressed for centuries to rise to new life. These people included the Czechs, Yugoslavians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Poles.

Poland has more often than not been on the right side of history. In the middle ages, while Jews and other minorities were being banished, tortured and killed by other countries, Poland accepted them, granting them the human rights that all people deserve.

In 1791, when most of Europe was still dominated by kings, Poland signed the second democratic constitution in history (after the United States). The constitution guaranteed greater liberty and equality for all people within the Polish lands. Sadly, just a few years later, Poland was conquered and divided up between the empires of Europe.

Polish FreedomWhen it gained independence in 1918, Poland was, again, on the right side of history. It served as a living example of a people’s natural right to be free in their own country, what Woodrow Wilson called “national self-determination.”

Despite this impressive record, Poland is often known for its inability to stay independent. Indeed, just 21 years after gaining independence in 1918, it lost it when the Nazis invaded. After World War II, it continued to suffer repression by the Soviet Union. For decades, it was trapped behind the communist “iron curtain,” until regaining freedom in 1989. Even now, an increasingly aggressive Russia has Poland once again fearing for its future.

So why is the 1918 independence day particularly important for Poles? Why choose to celebrate something that was so temporary and seemingly meaningless when we look at Poland’s history in the 20th century?

I suppose the technical explanation is that 1918 was the first time that the modern Polish nation was formed. In the past, it had been a kingdom. In the future, it would continue to be a nation, but in a different form.

More importantly, though, it’s an example of how Poles are among the most determined group of people on earth, unwilling to give up even when the sky is collapsing around them. There was no guarantee that the new Poland formed in 1918 would last. The fact that independence had been gained at all after over a hundred years was a miracle, and the future didn’t necessarily look promising.

Dzien NiepodległościStill, Poland survived. It didn’t matter what might happen . The main thing was to focus on the here and now. Do your best with what you have, and never EVER give up. Sounds cliché, but it describes the entire Polish experience. No matter how many times it gets knocked down—by the Mongols, the Swedes, the Soviets, the Nazis, etc.—it ALWAYS gets back up to try again. That’s a lesson everyone can learn from Polish independence.

I’m an American. I was born in America, and my primary loyalties are to the red, white and blue. For me, independence day is July 4. But, deep inside me, on a day like today, I feel a proud connection to my Polish ancestors who fought and died for an idea that was Poland. A drum beats in my heart and those famous words from the Polish national anthem echo in my soul:  Poland is not yet lost.