Earlier this year during her biennial visit from Poland, my mother and I were having a disagreement about a recent Polish government policy. It was another in a long line of (what I believe) to be regressive policies adopted by Poland of late, and I was frustrated that she couldn’t see my point.
“You just don’t have a Polish heart,” she finally came out with. “What does that mean?” I asked her, more puzzled than angry.
“It just means you don't have a Polish heart,” she repeated, and left the room. We talked no more about it, the implications of the statement left to linger.
Since then, nearly six months have passed and I’m still mulling it over.
I identify as ethnically Polish. I speak the language. I went to Polish school, and have a large group of przyjaciele - my Polish friends. I love - love - the food. How can I not have a Polish heart?
Have I changed? Have I lost something central to my identity?
Stumped, I decided to turn to something quintessentially Polish, something handed down to me from my mother, and handed down from her grandmother before that.
Stumped, I decided to turn to something quintessentially Polish, something handed down to me from my mother, and handed down from her grandmother before that. Pierogi. Fat, white dumplings filled with cheese and onion and slathered in sour cream. If I can cook perogi, the food of my mother, I thought to myself, how can I not have a Polish heart?
As a first generation Pole, I’ve often straddled the line between Australian and Polish cultures. Born in Melbourne, I returned to Poland with my parents when I was nearly three-years-old and spent five of my formative childhood years in a country still emerging from communism and decades of unimaginable horror.
We returned to Australia when I was nine, my parents seeking another chance at wealth in one of the world’s richest and ‘luckiest’ nations. They have since returned to Poland again, making the difficult decision to live out the rest of their life many thousands of kilometres away from their only child, after it became clear that three decades’ of manual work in Australia cannot even begin to fund an adequate retirement.
Since they left, I’ve found myself pining for Polish food, particularly pierogi. One of my fondest memories growing up was my mother slaving over the fat dumplings, sweet and sour and fatty and comforting, like the best Polish food.
One of my fondest memories growing up was my mother slaving over the fat dumplings, sweet and sour and fatty and comforting, like the best Polish food.
Mound 390 grams of flour on a clean work surface and make a well in the centre, adding one egg, two teaspoons of vegetable oil and a pinch of salt. Beat together carefully without disturbing the flour.
For the first time, my parents -- along with all Polish people -- are living in a comparatively rich Poland, a nation resplendent with capitalist gains, a nation to be proud of. As a result, they have rediscovered their Polish identity, been swept away by Poland’s economic success and its rise to power after almost a century of darkness.
They are now living the kind of life in Poland they always wanted to live in Australia: they go out to cafes whenever they want; splurge on nice outfits and beers in town with friends without worrying about paying the mortgage. They can afford to visit me (thus the biennial trip -- they take turns to visit me every year) and they can go on holidays if they wish.
Continue stirring with spoon, adding small amounts of warm water into the mixture while gradually incorporating flour.
It is this national pride that I wanted to feel when I engaged in the most Polish activity of all during the first lockdown: making a batch of pierogi, a quintessential Polish dish that is dumplings (made from unleavened dough) stuffed with cheese and potato, meat, mushrooms, sauerkraut or fruit.
In many ways, the process of making pierogi is a metaphor for Poland’s value system: a labour intensive activity performed mostly by women, it requires up to six hours to make the dough, cook the filling and then assemble, slowly, meticulously, the dumplings in a way that guarantees their survival in a pan of boiling water. You get better the more you cook: after half a day’s work I only managed to get 40 pierogi, while my mother manages to get 100.
In many ways, the process of making pierogi is a metaphor for Poland’s value system: a labour intensive activity performed mostly by women, it requires up to six hours to make the dough, cook the filling and then assemble, slowly, meticulously, the dumplings in a way that guarantees their survival in a pan of boiling water.
Once the dough has begun to form, lose the spoon and knead for eight minutes with your hands.
Making pierogi requires huge sacrifice -- you can’t work and make meals this labour intensive for the family every day, so often, you have to decide what is more important. For Polish women (because it is Polish women who overwhelmingly still cook) it is almost always family, and it comes at the expense of values I personally hold most dear: feminism and liberalism.
Once it is smooth and elastic, invert a bowl over the dough and let it rest at room temperature for one hour. Meanwhile, make the filling and bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Western media - whose coverage of Poland is underpinned by liberal democratic values - has created an impression of a nation riddled with corruption and hell bent on destroying liberal democracy.
In reality, the situation is much more nuanced and complex, and to understand it we must draw on Poland’s history of wars, as well as its commitment to family values and the Catholic faith.
My parents, after 35 years of living on the outskirts of Australian society, finally feel accepted. They are cogs in the machine that is Poland, a machine that pledges to take care of its citizens first, to give money to poor Polish families. My parents believe - as do many Poles - that their country is finally able to take care of them and their interests, as capitalist money pours in from doing business with the rich West.
I see it from both sides, and it is difficult for me to reconcile the political Poland of today with the Poland of my memories: a comforting and generous place filled with abundant food and warm and intense people. Yet as I follow what is happening on the other side of my world, I feel increasingly out of sync with some of Poland’s more conservative values.
Over the years, my ties to the Polish ‘motherland’ have loosened considerably and my allegiance to Australia has strengthened.
So I find myself, at 32, at a crossroads. On the one hand, my parents’ everyday absence from my life makes me miss them and our Polish life together. I miss the food - so labour intensive, so delicious - and I even miss church and the community it created.
I love spending time with my Polish friends, slipping effortlessly into Polish when we want to say something in secret or when a Polish saying perfectly sums up a situation.
I love spending time with my Polish friends, slipping effortlessly into Polish when we want to say something in secret or when a Polish saying perfectly sums up a situation. Yet, by growing up in Australia, I feel that I will never fully understand the pain of a nation whose identity continues to be shaped by a unique and violent history. My generation of Polish-Australians is no longer founded upon a shared memory of war and hardship — we are geographically and temporally distant from the horrors experienced by our forbearers.
Maybe I don’t have the kind of Polish heart my mother would recognise. There are bits of my country I love, but many I cannot reconcile with who I am now.
But I still love the country. I love the battered people, the culture and the food. My pierogi come out of the dish steaming, fat, and filled with comfort. I see the hours of hard work, the toil of my mother and her mother, but I still love how they taste.
Isn’t true love loving something in spite of its flaws?
Caroline Zielinski is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. She writes on health, science, culture, social affairs and all issues related to women. Follow Caroline on twitter: @CE_Zielinski