A Polish Christmas Eve: Then, There & Now

I recently realized that the only memory I actually had of Christmas from childhood was that of a photograph – the one where we were all sitting on the couch, my two cousins and I, my aunt and my uncle and my grandparents.

Moments earlier, someone had rang the doorbell, and when we three young’uns returned from checking who it was, we returned to a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree (!). Settled down, we were now waiting for the first star to appear – the star of Bethlehem – to signal the birth of Jesus and the beginning of Wigilia (vigil), one of the most important holidays in Poland.

This was the Christmas I had longed for since we moved to Canada, and this year, since I was ‘in the area’, I decided to celebrate the supper, held on Christmas Eve, Poland-style.

The day starts out with all eleven of us running around – there is a lot to prepare and everyone’s contribution is required. The children dress the tree, hang up some mistletoe, and spend the rest of the day playing computer games.

The table is prepared with hay under the table cloth, traditionally to bring good crops for the year, now mostly as a reminder of Jesus’ manger birth, and fish scales, symbolizing affluence, scattered under the plates to be later placed in respective wallets.

An extra setting is arranged at the table for a lost family member, or a wandering soul.

The beginning of Wigilia is set for 5:30pm: carols, no longer sung, are played quietly in the background, the birth story is read from the Bible, the Lord’s prayer is said by everyone, and then the oplatek – the Christmas wafer – is broken between each person as they wish each other good tidings for the year to come. There are twelve dishes as there were twelve apostles, and each one has to be tried. 

There is never red meat, but there is always fish (carp & herring) which symbolizes life, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (‘little ear’ pierogies), compote of dried fruit, and homemade desserts with mak (poppy seeds), which, through their ability to reproduce from one seed, symbolize abundance.

The uszka are missing but the ryba po grecku (fish ‘greek’ style), ryba w galarecie (in jello) staples are all there along with some new spins like herring rolls with plums and masala, and with apples and onions.

The children push for present time and when it comes, they run handing out presents like mad until everyone has a pile in front of them. When they’re all open, everyone finds their way back to the table to enjoy more pastries with compote and wine. And at midnight, the family goes to Pasterka – the midnight mass, originally to commemorate the three wise men paying homage to the baby Jesus, now done largely out of tradition.

I liked it. I liked how full of tradition it was. It was so different from my Christmases ‘at home,’ in Vancouver, where I always thought our table of four always felt so incomplete.

In Vancouver, we start out in a mad rush to finish with just the four of us there. There is no need to set up the Christmas tree – this was done by us all weeks ago and has been giving the whole house a feeling of festivity and warmth since. The carols are put on the radio, the table is cloaked with a white tablecloth, and an extra setting is arranged for a wandering soul.

Wigilia is begun when preparation is finished. The oplatek is shared amongst the four of us and well wishes of happiness and success are shared. There is never red meat, but there is always fish ‘po Grecku’ and ‘w galarecie,’ barszcz with uszka, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, wine, compote, and makowiec from the Polish store for dessert.

When we’re ready, we hand out the presents one by one and take our turns opening each one. One of the presents is inevitably a movie from Santa for the whole family and when all the presents are opened, we grab our wines, aperitifs and poppy seed cakes and let the movie play. We eventually retire to our respective rooms, or go off to visit other friends.

And I like it. I like how full of comfort it is. It’s different from the Christmas in Poland, but it’s a tradition that we had made our own, one that grew and changed along with us.

The Christmas from my childhood, the one from the photograph, from my hometown, when we all still believed in Santa Claus and my grandfather was alive, was always the one I had longed for, but I was never going to be able to recreate it.

We weren’t in my hometown, I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and my grandfather was gone. And when we finally got hold of the photograph I found out the biggest reason of all: turns out the photograph was taken during summer vacation one year – it wasn’t a Christmas photo at all!

My one memory of Christmas was one that didn’t even exist!

But the thing is, Christmas is huge in Poland, and it’s particularly important as quality time spent with people you love. That’s exactly what the photo resembled for me, and it’s exactly the thing I can always strive to recreate.

Southeast Asia Itinerary-To-Be

With only a week left before my southeast Asia trip (!!), I thought I’d psych myself up (what with Christmas being so distracting), with what may or may not be my 4ish-month southeast Asia itinerary-to-be.

So, even though I’m a glutton and want to see everything, EVERYTHING (almost), I am trying to stick to quality over quantity – more time often leads to richer experience and cuts down on transportation costs (at least).

For this reason I’ve implemented, albeit semi-unsuccessfully, the one city, one beach, one extra plan for each country: cities for history and culture learning, beaches for beaches and time to write, and ‘extra’ for all those novel or quintessential experiences you sometimes just have to do.

With that in mind and no further ado:

Thailand

City: Bangkok (pictured above) – Because I arrive in time to celebrate New Year’s (go big or go home, right?), and because I can’t not.

Beach: Maybe Ko Tao (above) for a diving certification, definitely Railay for the rock-climbable limestone crags, and then somewhere, anywhere (Ko Lanta? Ko Chang? Trang Islands? Bang Saphan?) to chill, work, enjoy and repeat (and there goes the one beach rule down the drain)…

Other (Culture): Back up north, Chiang Mai for culture and maybe a cooking class as a stopover before heading into Laos.

Cambodia

City: Phnom Penh – if only for the history learning of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields, as I currently know next to nothing. And because Siem Reap doesn’t count.

Beach: Sihanoukville – Maybe it’s a grungy beach, maybe it’s a party scene, but I’ve heard enough about Sihanoukville to know I need to at least visit it. And anything that supports me living on about $15/day on a beach, while getting work done, and enjoying good nightlife, well, consider me sold.

Other (Must-See): Siem Reap – Angkor Wat. Because it’s a checklist thing – sunrise, sunset, acting all Lara-Croft and the whole hoohaa, and because it’s apparently amazing.

The Other ‘Other’: Battambang – a “real slice of rural Cambodia” AND you get to take a boat ride there from Phnom Penh and I’m all about water if I don’t have to wade in. Plus, there maaaaaay be another reason for me to visit Battambang. For like, 11 days. If I go in March. (More on this later).

Oh, and maybe the Mekong Discovery Trail.We’ll see!!

Laos

Gah!! I already want to spend forever in Cambodia! How am I going to fit forever into Laos AND Vietnam, too??!

Novice Monks, Luang Prabang, LaosCity: Luang Prabang – see the whole monks wearing orange and collecting their alms in the morning thing.

Beach: Si Phan Don – Four thousand islands for beaches, hammocks and dolphins. I’ll try to choose just one.

Other: Vang Vieng – straight up tourist party scene destination. And must-do tubing on the Nam Song.

Vietnam

City: Hands down Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) – because of the history and because of the chaos.

Beach: Cat Bo – the less touristy and more beachy, adventure sport alternative to the infamous Halong Bay.

Ham Ninh Village, Phu Quoc Island, VietnamBeach 2: The Mekong Delta – because I {heart} cities on water. Enter any little village with beaches, jungles and back roads like Phu Quoc Island and I’m in bliss.

Other (Culture): Bac Ha/Sapa – For the hill tribe villages, if it’s warm, if I can ensure an “authentic” experience. Maaaaybe.

That’s about it for now. EXCITED!!!

What places would you add as must-sees? Which ones would you leave off?

the tenth month: clarity, volume and what’s up next [gdansk, poland]

The tenth month – Nov. 14thish to Dec. 15thish – was arrivals and departures, euphoria and sadness, uncertainty and excitement and a severe lack of sleep.

Clarity

When I left in February, it was to explore the world for at least a year, hopefully for five, and ideally forever. I was going to seek out odd jobs or TEFL, and get a career started with travel writing.

So…apparently I don’t actually like seeking out odd jobs, and due to lame excuses (like my disconfidence in marketing myself – see below), my travel writing didn’t happen either. With no cash coming in and my southeast Asia trip a month away, I told myself ‘it’s okay’ if I come home next March/April, just to take the pressure off of having to find a teaching job in Korea.

Well, as soon as I accepted this fact, I actually got really excited to go home.

Oops.

So, what did I do? I panicked. Did this mean I was a failure? That I was weak? Would this be the decision that hurls me towards a life of regret and resentment?

Well, in a word: no, no and no.

Because the only thing I was ever sure I wanted was a life of travel.

I’m always either traveling or preparing for it. So, I might go home but I’m not going anywhere.

Itinerary

That said, drum roll please…. I’m finally booked for Southeast Asia!!! And I want to see everything, EVERYTHING!!

I know quality beats quantity for richer experiences and less transportation costs so I’m trying to stick to one city, one beach and maybe one ‘other’ escapade for each country, but I’m a glutton for experience so I can’t imagine that’ll fare well.

The plan, which I fully expect to change on a daily basis: I land in BKK in time for New Year’s and spend the month in Thailand. Then move on to Cambodia for February. Laos in March. Then Vietnam in April.

And whenever it’s almost time to come home fund-wise, I’ll put away the beaches and hill tribe villages and jet off to sexy Shanghai (is Shanghai sexy? I don’t know. Jess?) to meet up with my ever awesomest roomie from Florence. Excited!!

Blog Changes

A lot of Laptop and a Lot of Tea

To learn from my mistakes regarding the lack of cash flow due to lack of effort, I’ve been doing a lot of backend learning and updating this month – SEO, branding, categorizing – and it was a whole lot of time to reflect: I’ve been on the road for 10 months – where are the blog posts I have to show for it? Lacking an interwebs connection or the necessary time is not a viable excuse. Both were present at least half the time, and I should’ve done better. I expected better.

But! I’m newly inspired and with my new knowledge in mind, I have two goals:

  1. Market myself!!!! For a business marketing major, I suck at this stuff when it comes to me. Well, no more. I’m going to become a lot more confident in promoting my stuff. Expect that.
  2. Because of the chasm between ‘potential’ and ‘ability’ that all creatives must bridge, I’ve been convinced to churn out posts like all hell’s breaking loose. Instead of working on each one for hours on end to try to make it perfect, I’m going to go through a hectic, probably bumpy, ride of pumping out volumes of prose because besides time, it’s the only way to catch up and close that gap. You’ve been warned.

So.

Here’s the yourlocalkat facebook page. It’s in the infancy stages, but I’m committed. Give it a look, and a Like!

And expect posts. Lots of them. Full of curiosity and passion, if not also insights and info.

And if you don’t hear from me for a week, call me on it.

:)