Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
Editor’s note: Macon County News reporter/journalist Abraham Mahshie recently spent time in Eastern Europe doing research for a book and attending a family wedding. The following is his account of an authentic Polish wedding.
Little did I know five years ago when I first “re-discovered” my Polish family in rural Eastern Poland, that I would return to Poland for the eighth time on May 25 for the wedding of my third cousin, Monika. Nor did I realize that it was not through language, but vodka that I would strengthen those family ties.
I had always been curious about my Polish heritage. My maternal grandparents spoke a little Polish – their parents had immigrated before the first World War – and certain cultural practices remained in my family for 100 years. The Christmas Eve celebration Wigilia, for instance, is still practiced by my cousins in Syracuse, New York. It involves the eating of fish as a sign of abstinence from meat, and the breaking of a wafer, symbolizing bread, by the family elder into tiny pieces for all the family to solemnly consume together. But for me, growing up in Miami, and away from my extended family, I didn’t pick up those traditions – I went to Poland to learn the reason behind them, and to see if I could find any family.
The family that immigrated to America and those that remained back in Poland were separated by three generations, 67 years of lost correspondence and 50 years of communism. All that remained was a single letter whose dateline read: “Village of Kamianka, 3 August 1947.” With that, five years ago, I hired a genealogist from the PolishOrigins genealogy tour company and embarked on the first of two trips to Poland and Lithuania to find the families of both my maternal grandmother and grandfather.
The reunions were emotional, breathtaking experiences when – through a translator – we realized that our stories matched in every way. The pieces were connecting: my great-grandfather Ludwik Jadczuk had immigrated to America but continued to write home to his brother Boleslaw for 30 years. The photos and letters were gone, but the stories remained. Like so many families during the communist era in Poland, communications broke down. American family members no longer spoke or wrote the native language, letters and boxes were lost. But, I found out that if you show up, you will be welcomed as if the family always knew you existed.
Reconnecting with family
After the first visit in 2014, it took several more visits – bringing my mother, brother, and two cousins – to start building family bonds. I always planned the trips roughly the same way, flying from where I lived in Madrid, Spain, to Warsaw, Poland, where I picked up a translator and drove about an hour and a half east into rolling pastures of farmland, dotted by little wooden houses and stone churches. I would organize a big lunch with as many family members as I knew at the time, and we ate wonderful, traditional Polish food like pierogies, dumplings filled with potatoes, onions, meat or mushrooms; kotlet schabowy, breaded pork cutlets; and drink tall glasses of Tyskie beer and plenty of Zubrowka vodka, especially with apple juice.
Vodka, it seemed, was the way to bond with family members who don’t speak your language.
Two of my cousins in particular, brothers Krzystof and Marek, became my favorites for their odd couple personalities, warm embraces, riotous laughter and fervent storytelling. But to hang with them, you needed to drink plenty of vodka. The thing about Polish vodka, though, good Polish vodka does not give you a hangover, and I learned one reason why: because you’re constantly eating bread, sausage, dumplings and cabbage.
Recruiting cousin Sean
I first met my Polish cousin Monika at a Starbucks at the Warsaw train station with her boyfriend, as he nervously translated for us with the little bit of English he knew at the time. Most young Poles from the big cities speak English, but not so for the smaller towns where business with the rest of Europe and tourism are not a mainstay.
That didn’t stop our communication ever since we became Facebook friends. Facebook automatically translates messages back and forth from Polish to English and vice versa.
A Facebook messenger message is how I found out– when my wedding invitation didn’t arrive– that I was invited to her wedding in Poland on May 25.
I called my cousin Sean Sparks in Syracuse, who I had a riot of a time with on our last trip to Poland together: “Sean – Monika’s getting married, want to go to the wedding with me?”
“Yeah!” he said and bought his ticket a few weeks later.
This despite a near fatal broken arm on his first trip to Poland, the product not of inebriated miscalculation, but of self-admitted clumsiness: he was getting up from a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby in Warsaw when he took a dive and broke his arm in six places.
When I got down to the lobby with my suitcase, ready to tour him around Old Town Warsaw, he was cradling his arm, and just like the volunteer firefighter that he is, he calmly explained that we were going to go to the hospital and that the receptionist had already marked its location on a map for us.
The Szpital Kliniczny Dzieciatka Jesus (Infant Jesus Teaching Hospital), built in 1901, with its cavernous halls and communist-era crumbling tile floors was where Sean had his arm set in a plaster cast before we did a quick tour of the Old Town and drove out to the countryside for a giant lunch with family. Several bottles of vodka later, after desserts at Krzystof’s home, Sean’s cast was signed by all our family members with the enormous cursive name “Marek” occupying the most real estate.
My cousin’s Polish wedding
My cousin Monika was one of the first of the family to leave rural Eastern Poland for Warsaw, where she studied business at the University of Warsaw while working and living with her boyfriend. They had already been dating for a few years by the time I met them in 2014, and their wedding date was already known by my last visit to Poland two years ago.
Sean met me in Warsaw the Thursday before the wedding. This time, we were staying in the trendy Praga neighborhood of former warehouses and vodka distilleries converted into hotels, restaurants, art galleries and bars. “Lonely Planet” [travel guide] gave me their shiny new Poland edition to review, revamped for a rapidly growing Poland that is attracting more tourists as it defies Western European prices with Eastern European culture and cuisine. LP explained the complicated history that built modern Warsaw and highlighted the district on the other side of the Vistula River, including the Neon Museum, which preserves in all its glowing brilliance the neon signs that popped up around Warsaw in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a bizarre celebration of anti-Western modernity blazoning the block-like communist architecture of the era.
If there’s one thing that I love about Polish creativity is how within the confines of communism, it managed to create its own schools of art: from graphic art posters to the neon designs on public buildings. And today, despite political infighting strikingly similar to our own, Poles are very proud of their European Union membership and 30 years of democracy.
Sean and I exited Warsaw on a beautiful new highway before weaving through villages to the old print house converted to a hotel, Stara Drukarnia. We ironed our suits on the nightstand and ducked into the 5 p.m. mass at the Catholic church in the village of Jablonna Lacka, where my great grandmother was baptized and where her parents were married. My Polish-reading skills, I found, were as weak as my listening skills, because despite a projector screen with all the prayers, I still could not understand them aside from a few “mothers” (matka) and “fathers” (ojciec).
That was fine. I admired the sing-songy nature of the prayers, the ornate gold-leafed church, its tall, white marble pillars and all the beautiful people present.
There was my cousin, her blonde hair pulled back into a bun, her eyelashes delicate. She wore a long, white dress, her mother nearby in a crimson gown. The groom, Maciej, was beaming nervously in a neat tux. I scanned the church looking for family members I knew, especially the only two cousins who for sure spoke English and who I expected to serve as our translators – not present.
“I don’t see the English-speaking cousins here, Sean,” I whispered to my cousin during church.
He replied: “Maybe we should’ve brought the translator.”
I replied, “Nah, we’ll be fine.”
After three years of online Polish classes, a year off will do some damage. It took a few days in Warsaw to recall some of the basic words and phrases, but it wasn’t enough time for my simple conversation skills to return.
There were a few things I could understand without knowing the language, like the bread and salt gift from the parents of the newlyweds as they entered the reception hall: a symbol of the prosperity and bitterness to come.
Once inside, I noticed we were seated at “Stol 2,” the family table, with all the cousins that we knew, including the mother of the bride. I was honored.
The night passed with singing, dancing and many toasts by cousin Marek (I stopped at 17) – some called on the newlyweds to kiss (they would cover their mouths with a hand, so you couldn’t see), while some called on everybody simply to drink. A spunky, grey-haired MC wore a top hat and coat with tails. After midnight he changed into a cap and jacket covered in silver sequins, and he kept the party going.
To soak up all that vodka the menu called for four meal servings: 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m., 1:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. The cake cutting was squeezed in between, at 12 a.m.
Occasionally, some younger friends of the bride and groom would stop by our table and translate for us with family, then we’d end up outside chatting with new friends who were taking smoke breaks.
As midnight neared, I witnessed one of the most beautiful wedding scenes outside under a dark sky in a cool air: “cold fireworks.” Everybody was handed a sparkler and we all surrounded the bride and groom lighting them up with the glow of 100 sparklers, slowly fading before going inside for the midnight cake cutting, and more vodka.