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How to avoid culture shock in Poland (and enjoy it)

Posted by Damian Novitzky on 30/07/2019
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Every country has customs that confuse and sometimes even shock foreigners. Polish people have their celebrations, special occasions or just everyday customs, that surprises everyone, except them. To prepare you against cultural shock, I made a shortlist of very Polish habits and traditions. Instead of surprise and confusion, you will be able to enjoy yourself to the limits. Let’s get going!

So cultural shock is an unpleasant shock that we experience when we encounter a foreign, unknown culture. It turns out that our expectations are entirely different from what we encounter in reality. Poland’s most surprising customs usually are relics of folk traditions (sometimes together with religious observances). That’s why my list starts with the pagan roots of Polish culture.

Drowning the Marzanna (Topienie marzanny)

At the end of winter, Poles make human-sized dolls, called Marzanna. It’s the Polish name for a Slavic goddess associated with death and winter. Pagan religion was eradicated from Poland in the early 11th century. Though Marzanna is still alive and very popular all over Poland. It is made of straw and shaped into a humanoid form. In some areas of the country, it is dressed in a wedding dress. The doll is sometimes drowned in a river, pond or lake. Some people set it on fire first. It takes place on the first day of spring, on March 21st. On this day killing dolls symbolizes killing the winter and welcoming spring. Both children in school and students take part in preparing the Marzana.

Celebration of name days (Imieniny)

If you didn’t know, there is such a thing as name day. And it’s quite popular in Poland. Poles like to celebrate name days in the same way as birthdays. Mainly between people bit older, 40+. The rule is that each day has its own patron, like Maria on February 2nd or Anna on July 26th. Your name day accrues on the first day of your names patron after your birthday. Weird? Maybe. Celebrated? Very much, so don’t forget to call someone you know and in case of a party, bring a gift, even a small one.

A second wedding party (Poprawiny)

Soo, after the main event of the wedding, on the very next day there is a continuation of a party. Poprawiny basically starts the wedding party all over again. Usually, it happens in the middle of the day after the wedding party, and sometimes it is even carried on to the third day. There are stories about week-long wedding parties organized in the south, by Gorals – the inhabitants of the Polish Tatra mountains. But no one remembers that correctly. Wonder why…

Tradition of straw under the tablecloth and an additional plate during Christmas

Celebration of Christmas and Easter is significant in Poland. That’s why there are a few habits and traditions to obey. Firstly, at Christmas, you have to put a little bit of straw under the tablecloth and set one extra plate for an unexpected guest. The reason behind it, is that Jesus was born in a small stable, and the straw is to symbolize the paucity of the circumstances of his coming to Earth.

There is an old Polish saying ‘Gość w dom, Bóg w dom’, which means that the presence of a guest is God’s blessing. Hospitality is a part of the Polish identity and Poles are determined not to leave anybody alone or hungry on Christmas. That’s the reason behind an extra plate on the Christmas table.

Open sandwiches (Kanapki)

Sandwiches are pretty regular food for lunch or more extended break at work or school. You know two slices of bread and some goodie between. In Poland people though, people eat “kanapka” which is sliced food served as some sort of open sandwich. The kanapka is the first choice for breakfast, lunch, supper or any small and quick meal. You will find it in most cafes, restaurants or bakeries. The kanapka can be garnished with a variety of foods.

Wearing slippers at home (Kapcie)

In Poland, you will be asked to take your shoes indoors. But, if you worry about cold feet – don’t. Poles are well prepared with special slippers also known as “kapcie”. Poles usually have a selection of different slippers so that all visitors can enjoy their feet warm and cosy.

Fat Thursday (Tłusty czwartek)

It’s not a most complicated customs, but definitely the tastiest one. The rules are simple: you just need to eat doughnuts, a lot of them. In the Christian calendar, the last Thursday before Lent, also known as the Fat Thursday, the Carnival. Fat Thursday marks the beginning of the last week of the Carnival. According to tradition, this day is allowed to overeat.

Juwenalia

If you just become a student of Polish university, brace yourself, because there is a little thing going on, called Juwenalia. It’s from Latin Iuvenalia, and it’s an annual higher education students’ holiday in Poland. It’s usually celebrated in May, before the summer exams, sometimes also at the beginning of June. Juwenalia is marked in all colleges in Poland, with different names depending on a school or a city. For example: at Academies of Economy, they are called – Ekonomalia and at Medical Academies – Medykalia. Juwenalia starts with a triumphant parade of colourfully dressed students. The participants’ march from a college’s campus to the city’s main square, wherein a symbolic gesture, the mayor of a city hands keys to the city’s gates to the students. The three days are free from lectures and filled with concerts, parties, sports events as well as beer drinking.

Student culture is usually an amateur activity in the field of poetry, song, cabaret and stage, but some of its performers continue it professionally afterwards. It is also associated with such characteristic phenomena as sung poetry, amateur theatre, political satire, cabaret and even mass hiking.

It’s considered that the student culture was most vital during the communist period in Poland. It was mostly political at the time. After 1989, student culture is experiencing a crisis, because the activity of contemporary academic youth began to be associated primarily with building a professional career.

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