A Holiday Story from Away*

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange.  As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known”      ________________________________ Unknown

I just discovered on Wednesday that tomorrow was Thanksgiving!   It was a surprise to me.  I had called my sister to wish her a happy birthday. She started to tell me what an uncharacteristically small group of family and friends she would be serving the next day. That was the smack upside my head.   It was the end of November. How did I miss the looming feast of gratitude and gluttony? For one, there had been no preparatory shopping; there were no cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin calling my name in the supermarket; no recipes were retrieved for a cooking bonanza, no one pulled out the good china and tablecloth. I had not even made an energetic effort to find a restaurant that serves turkey on Thanksgiving Day in Poland.

I’ve known for a while now that we wouldn’t be roasting a turkey this year. We don’t have an oven. For me, it was one of the negative features of our flat. It is not uncommon for European flats in a big city to be minus an oven. I had already worked my way past this hurdle by researching dozens of different recipes that involved cook top sautés, microwave casseroles, and slow-cooker soups. Living without an oven has become another exercise in small living, making-do, and acquiring ‘Zen.’

Before we moved to Europe, we were binge watchers of House Hunters International. Episodes sometimes showed the young American couple viewing a kitchen in a European flat. It was predictable that when they were told there was no oven, they would exclaim: how will we roast the Thanksgiving turkey? Or the couple would open up a very small oven in the kitchen and proclaim: “You can’t roast a Thanksgiving turkey in there.” Hilarious.

For the past two weeks, Kraków has been brimming with holiday decorations and preparations well before any official start of the holiday season. There are malls in town IMG_0212and more malls on the outskirts. The malls are filled with the same energy as any in the U.S. right before Thanksgiving. The mall near us, the Galeria Krakowska, is beautifully decorated. The stores are filling up with Christmas decorations, glitzy or campy gifts, high-end merchandise, toys and beautiful winter and party clothing. Shoppers are getting an early start on the Christmas buying.   Capitalism in Poland is very evident not only through the exuberant displays of merchandise but also with the labels on that merchandise. The free market is here; the era of communism is melting like the wicked witch of the west (or in this case it would be the east). Poland ‘s identification is as a western European country even though we often say it is in Eastern Europe.   Poland’s vision lies in western not eastern economics.

Thanksgiv_1It is startling how much product is available to buy and how swiftly the consumer markets have grown here in Poland.  Along with the high-end goods, I also observed the little things like candy canes, chocolate Santa’s (not the Mikolaj or St. Nicholas I knew as a child), gold and silver ornaments, fake trees, specialty holiday china, table centerpieces, holiday throw pillows, placemats, holiday mugs, and candles; the things you don’t really need but binge-buy anyway in the grip of Christmas fever. In one high-end house wares store, I found a wall of Kitchen-aids in a wild assortment of colors.  One man was buying 20 musical snow globes at a housewares store that reminded me of Crate and Barrel. The globes played ‘Jingle Bells’.  I know because I strained to listen. The girls at the counter were running back and forth from the stock room trying to provide an adequate box for each snow globe.

And for the first time I noticed that there is piped-in music in the Galeria Krakowska. This holiday music sounded strangely “American Christmas-y “.  It was not the traditional Polish carols (kolędy) which are usually religious songs. While I was pushing my cart through the Christmas candy aisle in Carrafours, a super-sized supermarket and all-purpose household store, I heard Rosemary Thanksgiv_6Clooney belting out what sounded like a holiday number. I was supposed to be buying coat hangers, tissues and cough drops but here I was sucked into cheesy Christmas merchandise just as if I was shopping in Target back home. I did enjoy finding a bag of ‘piernikis’ (cookies) coated in a sugar glaze. Pierniki is a typical Polish gingerbread-honey star-shaped cookie. This package had a Christmas theme and I brought it home for “Thanksgiving”. I was also delighted to find packaged cookies shaped like little men and women with strings run through their heads for hanging on the tree. They were rock hard cookies so I was not sure if they were edible. The store’s staff was clearing several aisles in the back where the ‘need to have’ plastic kitchen storage items, dish drainers and breadboxes are usually displayed. They were stocking toys: Barbies and Legos included. Toys, a staple Christmas moneymaker, same as they are in every supermarket in the U.S. As I was getting ready to leave the store, I heard the unmistakable ‘fa-la-la’ refrain of Deck the Halls. No ambiguity: they were playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving and the music was not ‘kolędy’.

“Vinter” not “Winter” … a parody?

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Poland. I think that a celebration of giving thanks would go deeper here.   A Thanksgiving celebration might include a prayer of gratitude for freedom from the uninvited oppression of not so long ago. Gratitude for freedom from a communist everyday is black Friday when people would have to wait in day-long lines for a bag of onions and some potatoes. Gratitude for a declining unemployment rate and a stable economy.   Gratitude for stores weighed-down with merchandise. Gratitude for bountiful tables and bountiful homes. These things were non-existent just a little over 20 years ago. And the process of coming to this mark in the economy did not happen overnight.

This apartment we have been living in for two months feels like home now.  Living in Europe is not about trying to reproduce the lifestyle we had in the U.S.  Being here is about trying new things and living differently. As I write this, Sara Bareilles is singing: “I wanna see you be brave … Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live, Maybe one of these days you can let the light in, Show me how big your brave is”    How big is my brave? Enough to go whole-hog European?  No nostalgia, no remorse just a steady step forward. It is time to breathe and smell the aroma of the delicious European coffee. I anoint Thanksgiving as my holiday of letting air in and out of my lungs again.  No more whirlwinds, no more fuss.

In the end, Greg was gifted with a very bad cold on the day of his birthday (the 24th), which kept him in the sickness doldrums for the rest of the week including Thanksgiving Day. I could not drag him to a restaurant on the ‘turkey’ day. As of today, we haven’t even had his birthday dinner. I made some outstanding toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and the cafe on the block cooks up some delicious home-made soups. I’m not crying into my soup over missed turkey because this year, maybe for the first time, without the distraction of cooking, cleaning and entertaining, I was able to focus on the thanksgiving part of thanksgiving.  At the top of the gratitude list are my generous loving magnificent friends – without them life would be rather colorless.  And besides the regular items that end up on Thanksgiving gratitude lists like world peace (questionable), food on the table (check), health (intensely grateful for this), and family (I miss them very much),  I am thankful for the opportunity with which my ancestors have blessed me here in the little flat in Kraków.


Greg’s Photo of the Galeria Krakowska

*The term “From Away” is used in the state of Maine to designate people who have moved into the state by those who have been born in the state.  A person could live in Maine for 30 years and they would still be “From Away” to a native-born Maine -er.