In many major U.S. cities, there is a substantial Polish and Polish-American population. Whether it be from Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow, or elsewhere, the Polish people have made a huge impact on many major American cities, mainly Midwestern ones such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. For that reason, we have compiled a list of 10 things that all Polish people remember from growing up.
1. You Cleaned Things Until They Shined, and Then Cleaned Again
One of the unfortunate stereotypes surrounding Polish people in America is that they tend to take on a lot of menial service jobs, such as that of cleaning lady. However, behind every stereotype is a kernel of truth. Polish people mostly maintain pristine homes in which not even fingerprints or the smallest crumb can be tolerated. If you have every found yourself polishing something beyond the point of usefulness, you might be Polish.
2. You Did Not Understand Why People Could Not Pronounce the Jumble of Z’s, K’s, S’s, and C’s that is your last name.
Pronunciation of Polish words and names for Americans and other non-Polish cultures is almost impossible. For example, my American roommate pronounces the beer Zywiec (zivvv-yetz) as Z-iiii-weck. Similarly, for Polish people, you never met a non-Pole who could pronounce your last name properly on the first try, or even after extended practice. Your name is just a mystery to them.
3. You Have Been Handed Kielbasa, Pierogi, Kolaczki, etc as You Left Someone’s House
For me, the copious amounts of unique food define my life as a Pole. In this case, you have spent all day eating a huge feast at your relative’s house, and you are trying to be polite by leaving quietly and without a scene, as is the Polish way. However, a relative (your babcia, chocha, or someone else-most likely female) comes up to you as you leave and literally puts a roll of sausage in your hand– no bag or anything. It’s for the road and so you get grube (large/strong) right?
4. Paczki Day
If you don’t know this one, you have never been Polish or even met any Polish people. Paczki Day (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday elsewhere) is the day–no, the week– when your babcia (Polish for grandmother) turns her home into a bakery and churns out what seems like thousands of small, doughy, jelly-filled pastries. If it seems like your babcia is cooking for the whole neighborhood, don’t worry. It’s because she totally is.
5. You Find Yourself Avoiding Credit or Recognition For Most Things
When achieving success, Americans love to boast and dance and show-off, but when you get the job done, you put your head down and shrug your shoulders. I recognize this tendency in myself, especially when I played sports as a kid. Other kids would hit a home run and act like they won the Olympics. I would (eventually) hit home runs and shrug my shoulders. Why celebrate accomplishing exactly what you are supposed to accomplish?
6. You Spent All Day Sunday/Your Entire Weekend In Some Combination of Church/Polish School
Even if you were fairly Americanized, you spent your whole weekend engaged in church and Polish school, learning the language and culture. You basically had a double life, acting like an American in American school and then cultivating some serious knowledge about your Polish roots and language on the weekend.
7. Speaking of Church, Pope John Paul II Was Basically a God
Depending on when you were born, your first memories may be of your Babcia praying to a picture of Pope John Paul II, who was basically a Polish version of 2008 Obama, except better because of his Divine Powers. Every Polish family had a picture of John Paul, the Pride of Krakow, on his or her wall, and, as you learned more about Catholicism in Sunday School, you wondered how the way your family treated him was not in violation of the First Commandment.
8. You Didn’t Understand Fashion and Often Wore Loud, Mismatched Outfits.
Because it wasn’t necessarily immediately useful, you didn’t have time for fashion or other non-expedient appearance-related endeavors. As such, you often wore something like red-and-black checkers button downs with blue-and-yellow polka-dot shorts, not understanding that the tremendous clash Americans often pointed out was actually a real, visual thing, and not just some silly trend that would pass, as things in America often do. And don’t get me started on socks with sandals, regardless of how comfortable they are.
9. You Spent Whole Summers, or Good Parts of Them, In Poland Itself.
Depending on your ties to the culture, when school let out, many Polish people took off for the homeland, not to return until the last day possible. Mostly, these trips didn’t feel like a vacation, per se, but rather, they felt like something every culture should do but didn’t– going back to learn who you are and where you came from, so that you could get a better understanding of yourself. Bonus points for anyone who spent that whole summer on a farm in Poland, especially when you usually lived in a major Midwest city.
10. You Have a Uniquely Polish Energy
This one is hard to capture in words, because it mostly falls along those lines of “I know it when I see it” tests. But still, when first meeting someone of Eastern European descent, I can tell immediately if they are Polish, simply based on how active, kinetic, and efficient their actions are. Polish people are intensely efficient, and if you see someone who is standing out of the crowd by working harder than others, getting the job done by moving quicker without regard for their own personal well-being–that person is probably Polish, and other Poles would recognize that Pole simply by body movements and the need to solve problems. It truly is unique.
Featured photo credit: Flag/David Ripamonti via flickr.com