When our American friends visited our Seattle apartment for the first time, you could tell we all grew in different cultures. Having guests at home is a great chance to observe ourselves and others. How flexible is Polish hospitality? Do Poles allow you to check the inside of their fridge or pour yourself a shot of vodka? Or they stop you on the very threshold to give you an offer you cannot refuse?
Polish hospitality means that setting the table with a small amount of food in Poland seems to be a significant failure to the hosts. Hence, even on the smallest and weirdest occasions for gatherings Poles tend to make their tables bent with the piles of mayonnaise salads, cold meats, and cakes. Housewives bustle about feverishly preparing tons of food their family will be still eating long after the guests are gone. All the food needs to be homemade – otherwise, it’s a great shame! If on a family meeting or a party a hostess throws she served you chips and Bartell cookies; she’s bringing it upon herself. At the same time beware that Poles don’t really know how to take compliments and they will deny every complement you say 🙂
Growing up in such culture I’ve been nurturing the belief that a housewife is responsible for preparing the house and all the food for her guests. Lucky, traveling and having to do with different cultures made my hospitality more flexible.
Polish saying: “Guest coming into the house – God coming into the house” is, in other words, the essence of Polish hospitality. It means that hospitality is the holy duty of the host. But how does it apply to taking your shoes off on the threshold, individual house rules and the American saying: “Make yourself at home!”?
What to know about Polish household
Let’s start by saying that it’s not important whether you are American, Polish, Canadian or Swiss. The country of your origin doesn’t define you. What’s important is the way we can all celebrate our similarities and differences. I also need to say that our apartment in Seattle isn’t really what the world would expect of a traditional-looking Polish interior. You won’t find here a cross or a picture or our Pope John Paul II; we don’t hold a library of the classical Polish writers; you also won’t find a storage full of pickles and an emergency vodka in the freezer. What we do have is a small picture of a Polish painter and few “Wawel heads” decorating our kitchen wall. That’s about it with the Polishes of our apartment.
Little could I know about the way my message will be received when I invited Americans over. It seems that what for me was a casual lingering over a Polish plate, our guests received as rather former “sit down dinner.” It’s just that I wouldn’t imagine having dinner standing up as well as eating with my fingers and drinking from plastic cups 🙂 I understood later that the initiative was very mature and appreciated. Though, the word “mature” made me feel like an old head on young shoulders and think I come from old-fashioned middle-aged Europe. I felt the same back in 2010 when I asked for cutleries buying small pizza in some Bostonian bistro. The cashier asked me an inevitable question: “Are you normal?” Well… now I don’t think so.
The invitation is related to punctuality. I know a bunch of people from different countries that are notoriously late. Some even believe in the courteous 15-mins lateness that allows the hosts finish their preparations if they are running late. I’m always on time only because I believe in punctuality. Therefore, when I know I’ll be running late I’m sending my hosts a message for them to know. For, what if the hot dish is almost ready and I’m not there? Are Poles generally late? Hard to say – it’s better to check it yourself.
Americans seem to be much more relaxed about the concept of time. Based on various observations I would stay: it’s not that American are late on purpose, it’s just that the winged chariot of time overtakes them very often. Therefore, you should add from half an hour time to the eternity to the planned meeting time.
Welcomes, goodbyes, hugs and kisses
All countries and cultures are governed by some common customs. The standard greeting in Poland for both sexes in the circle of family and friends will be a huge bear hug and touch cheeks and 3 kisses blown in the air (or directly saliva-skin). You welcome further friends and acquaintances through the obligatory handshake. Nevertheless, it may happen that some groups are ruled by their own rules. For instance, it some rural areas of Poland you may be the only person who didn’t get a handshake because you are… a woman. Instead, you may be just welcomed verbally or get a wet chivalrous kiss on your hand. In Poland, as well as some other countries elder persons are given the precedents of dictating the way of greeting, so you need to adjust.
Greeting and saying goodbyes to the Americans I always pay attention to how they behave. Meeting somebody for the first time, you’d shake their hand and after spending some hours in their company give them a light hug for goodbye. I’ve observed that in Seattle people often greet each other verbally without any physical contact. However, that may be of course vary and be connected with the place where you’re from. Seattle is above all the city of implants.
Taking off your shoes
The unwritten Polish savoir vivre tells all Poles to take off their shoes when entering somebody’s house. Poles tend to do it involuntarily – Americans not really. In many Polish homes, hosts keep slippers reserved only for guests. That’s also why right after the threshold your host offers you the change of shoes. It’s an offer you cannot refuse.
I thought that welcoming guests with the words “Make yourself at home!” I was giving them the permission to keep on their shoes. Surprisingly, everyone left them in the corridor. They must have heard about the Polish love towards slippers.
Mi casa es tu casa
Poles very rarely use the expression “make yourself at home.” For in Polish the most common phrase “Rozgość się!” derives from the word “guest” and literally translates into “fell like a guest here.” Even though probably no Pole pays attention to it, the expression makes you remember that you are in somebody’s else’s house and you cannot do as you please. Of course one can say “make yourself at home” (pl. “Czuj się jak u siebie w domu”) in Polish but who would use 7 words instead of 2?
Polish vodka on a Polish table
Vodka is the king of Slavic pallets! Who in the world drinks most vodka and why are these… the Russians?
Probably in the entire world most common words that go along with “Polish” are “Polish sausage” and “Polish vodka.” So here is the question: Somebody brings vodka to a Polish house, what do you do?
For quite some time now we’ve been practicing the rule of B.Y.O.B. That means more or less that you should bring the alcohol you’d like to drink that evening. So vodka is just fine if you want to drink it.
But how to properly drink vodka in a Polish household or in a house of Poles that care for the Polish culture alcohol drinking (read: not us)? When Poles drink vodka, they drink a lot and drink it fast from small shot glasses. The pace of drinking is set either by the host or self-proclaimed emcee who pours vodka into the glasses and makes sure nobody hangs back. You can take a sip of juice or bite of food after the shot. Though, self-appointing yourself to the bottle is highly inappropriate towards your host and other guests. It’s the same with having seconds of dishes that are no longer on the table. If a Pole is still hungry and would like to get some more of the food that has already landed in the kitchen, he or she would lower their voice and ask one of the hosts if “he/she could have some more.”
I do admit I was a bit surprised when suddenly one of the guests headed to the fridge and started looking through it.
Though it wasn’t the feeling I couldn’t shake off – luckily nobody was to be found in the freezer. They say “Mi casa es tu Casa.”
Washing one’s hands
It’s utterly surprising to me how so afraid of the “shoe germs” Poles, ultimately don’t pay attention to what their guests should be used for drying hands in the bathroom. I never met a Polish house where during a party, guests got their dedicated towel. The thought of being faced with the perspective of drying my hands on the host’s bath towel fills me with great discomfort. On the contrary, American houses look a bit better in this matter
All in all, it was a pleasant get-together: we had some food, something to drink, and played some games. The cultural exchange has happened: we’ve learned something about the US- our guests learned something about Poland. I had lots of fun! After telling some legends linked to our apartment’s interior we’ve also heard that we’re “so Polish Poles.” This sentence in the mouth of our countrymen would be ironic, though I believe in this case it was a praise.
I wonder how are you and your families receiving guests at home? Is your way any different than the Polish way? What is Polishness?