For over a year now, I’ve been working on a memoir of the year I spent living in Elblag, Poland teaching English. (1992-93) I always say it was the best year of my life – the year I learned more about myself than I could have imagined needed learning, and challenged myself more than I thought possible. Here’s a little taste of that amazing year.
To Market, To Market
With hands tingling from below-zero temperatures, I pulled open the heavy, steel-framed glass door and stepped inside the store, smack-dab into the end of the line for a grocery basket. For decades, the people of Poland had stood in line for everything from bread to shoes. Even now, three years after the fall of Communism, they didn’t seem to mind waiting for one of the limited number of shopping baskets. Always a line, I sighed. Of course, no one was allowed to shop without a basket, so I had no choice but to wait.
Well, at least it’s warm in here. Outside, more than two feet of crusted snow blanketed the town of Elblag, and the frigid winds of January blasted through the heaviest layers of clothing. Though careful, I had slipped several times on the icy sidewalk between my apartment and the store. Perfect weather for mac and cheese. Or enchiladas. Or a burger. I had been dreaming of my favorite meals from home since the first flakes of snow drifted to the ground in October, but had yet to find anything resembling comfort food.
I pulled my gloves off and vigorously rubbed my hands together as the line crept further into the cinderblock building with its barred, high-set windows and garish fluorescent lights. The concrete floor and metal shelves amplified the clickety-clack sounds of four cash registers as the cashiers pounded on heavy keys and cranked levers to total each receipt.
Finally, I reached the front of the line, where a departing customer handed me her empty basket. I pushed aside images of my favorite foods and started my weekly shopping routine. Most of the store’s stock consisted of items produced in Eastern European countries or former Soviet republics. I couldn’t read the labels and had discovered early on not to trust the pictures on the front. Why had a can decorated with drawings of fruit trees, contained some kind of pate’? Lesson learned.
My regular circuit through the store always started at the meat and cheese case. By now, the panis behind the counter, in their dingy white aprons, knew me and understood my requests, in halting Polish, for zuta ser. It didn’t have the tang or smoothness of cheddar, but I had grown accustomed to its mellow flavor and grainy texture. The only other cheese available was a slightly grey, cottage-cheese-like goo displayed in a crusty bowl.
“One-half kilo yellow cheese, please,” I requested at the counter.
“Of course,” the pani replied as she expertly eyed the wheel of wax-coated cheese and cut off exactly a half-kilo. She wrapped it in butcher paper, and with her fat black marker, noted the price on top. Before I could say thank you, she pulled the bigos kielbasa from the case and cut off a 10-inch portion. I sighed inwardly. I hadn’t intended on buying any, but I didn’t want to make a fuss by refusing it after she had so proudly remembered my preference.
Bigos kielbasa was the only meat I ever purchased at the store and all the panis knew it. Other choices were available, but I couldn’t summon the courage to try the purplish-brown blood sausage, or the bloated white links with fat globules visible through translucent casing. I also steered clear of the slabs of pork with their thick edges of fat and an iridescent blue-green sheen that matched the color of the flies that swarmed the meat.
My preference for lean sausage over the richer, more desirable fatty options baffled the panis. “It is for peasants,” they explained the first few times I requested it. Pointing to the other, richer sausages, they pleaded with me to purchase those instead. I politely refused week after week, until finally, in resigned disbelief, they collectively shrugged their shoulders and gave up their quest to convert me.
“Dziekuje,” I said, thanking the pani as I put the items into my basket and quickly backed away, eager to avoid any further offerings from the counter.
The rest of the store consisted of five scantly stocked, low shelved aisles. Aside from staples like bread, canned fish, butter and jam, occasional surprises appeared on the shelves. One week I found Italian pasta, and the next, a package of Turkish dates. A jar of Greek olives was a delightful find early in the fall, but I hadn’t seen any more since. The English words “Spotted Dick” on a lone, heavy can caught my eye early in the year. “Steam, then serve with custard”, stated the instructions under a British flag and a picture of pale cake dotted with raisins. Steamed, canned cake? That can remained on the shelf the entire year I lived in Poland.
I scanned each aisle, hoping for something interesting to break the monotony of winter and the tedium of the same few meals over and over. I grabbed an unlabeled bag of snacks I called puffs. They looked and tasted a bit like foam packing peanuts, but had a satisfying crunch, and I had become accustomed to their lack of flavor. I could almost pretend they were Cheetos. Almost.
Two months back I had giggled with delight when I found three one-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper nestled on a bottom shelf next to a Polish soda that tasted like carbonated metal. I treasured every last drop of the beverage, and searched the shelves every week after that glorious day hoping to find even one more bottle, but to no avail. It seemed so odd that the store would get only three bottles, and never any more. But that’s just how things were in Poland.
A few other basics went into the basket as well: a can of stewed tomatoes, a kilo of flour, and some peanuts. As I turned the corner to the last aisle, my eyes locked on to a familiar image. A taste of home. A staple from my childhood. On the top shelf, above massive bags of barley with Cyrillic labels, stood six small, cable-car-emblazoned boxes. Rice-A-Roni. The expiration date had passed two months ago, and the boxes were a bit crushed. With instructions and labels in Greek and Albanian, I couldn’t tell what flavor they were, but I didn’t care. I wanted them. No. I needed them.
Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat. My head spun with delight. I could have burst into song right there in the aisle. The buttery, nutty rice concoction was one of my favorite dishes to make as a girl. By the time I was eleven, I didn’t even need the instructions. Melt butter in a pan, sauté the rice, add water and herbs, cover, simmer.
I snatched three boxes then hesitated. Can I take them all? I sighed, staring at the remaining boxes on the shelf. Is that greedy? The Greek letters started to swirl as my eyes lost their focus. And then I had my answer. With no Polish instructions, how will anyone else know how to make it? I quickly grabbed the remaining boxes and headed to the cashier before guilt got the better of me.
Like the ladies that worked at the meat and cheese case, the cashier panis knew me well. At first, they had questioned me each time I shopped: “Why did you come to Poland? Aren’t your parents worried about you? What are you doing here?”
Inevitably, my stumbling answers, “I teach English. I like Poland. My mother and father think it is good,” could not satisfy the curiosity of the inquisitor, and she would call her colleagues over for a group interrogation. Their questions and my simple answers would be repeated until I reached the limits of my vocabulary and they returned to their stations. I hoped, rather than believed, that deep down they understood that I had always craved adventure; that my parents were naturally concerned for my safety and well-being, but wholeheartedly supported my wanderlust and encouraged me to be independent; and that despite their opinions of their homeland, I actually wanted to be here. But they probably just thought I was crazy.
The cashier pulled each item from my basket and pounded the keys of her register, her boredom evident in her vacant stare. Cheese, sausage, peanuts, flour – the same things everyone else was buying; she knew the prices by heart. She pulled the first box of Rice-A-Roni from the basket, hesitating as she looked for the price sticker, then adding it to the total. By the time she reached for the last box, her eyes had become focused and inquisitive. I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. She glanced up at me, her eyes squinting. She held up the box, and in slow, simple Polish asked skeptically, “This tastes good?”
What could I say? I wasn’t buying it because it was tasty I was buying it because I needed it. Those six boxes connected me to home and family, to the warmth and love of my childhood.
Even if I had had the vocabulary to express my feelings, I was pretty sure that kind of sentiment would reignite the interrogations of months past. The cashier panis would call over the meat and cheese panis, and I’d be surrounded. I would stumble through my explanations for buying out the entire stock of little boxes of rice, and their initial analysis of my mental state (crazy American) would be confirmed. “She eats peasant sausage, likes living in Poland, and bought boxes of rice because she needs love?” I could picture them clucking their tongues and shaking their heads.
I took the easy way – the only way – out. “Yes. I like it. It tastes good,” I said, wrapping my tongue around the harsh consonants of the Polish language. Even with my best effort, I spoke with the vocabulary and enunciation of a child. I added the boxes to my grocery bag, handed the cashier a wad of limp, crinkled zloties, and slid home as carefully as possible along the icy sidewalk.
That evening, I prepared dinner with the care and attention normally reserved for a Thanksgiving feast. I dropped the butter into the pan with a flourish and watched it sizzle as it melted. I inhaled the nutty aroma as the rice browned. Then, at just the right moment, I added water, savoring the familiar hiss before it settled to a bubbly simmer. I stirred in the herbs and warmed my hands over the billowing steam before covering the pan to finish cooking.
I chose the blue floral plate from the stack of mismatched dishes in the cupboard, and set a place at the tiny kitchen table, complete with fork, knife, spoon and a folded paper napkin. I carefully mounded the entire pan full of love onto my plate, and took my seat on the low, hard stool. The first forkful of rice was like a welcoming hug, and I was transported through time and space, back to the bright, sunny kitchen of my childhood. I slowly savored every bite, lingering over dinner and fond memories of my family as long as possible.
Later that night I climbed into bed with a deep sense of contentment and reassurance that my family loved me, no matter how far apart we lived. I slept soundly and peacefully, tucked under my thick, heavy blankets, warmed and comforted by a taste of home.
Winter lasted another three months, but the Rice-A-Roni lasted only three weeks. I wasn’t surprised that, despite my weekly search, I never found another box. Among the store shelves, I found other surprises as spring came and went, including two boxes of Cheerios and a pallet full of Diet Coke, but nothing ever compared to the six small boxes of rice that appeared just when I needed them.