Best gift ever

A Polish thing

Just before the Christmas holidays, my school, behind on its bills, had cut the heat and power. “We want to go home,” my students complained.

They had a point. I was teaching in the dark, and my students sat before me in coats, hats and gloves. “You want to go home,” I thought darkly. It wasn’t an option for me, teaching in a small Polish town hours from somewhere.

Rather than spend Christmas there, I accepted an invitation from a friend. On the 12-hour trip, the heat in the train compartment blasted full steam, so I moved back and forth from the icy aisle, where some windows were frozen open. On the bus, the heat worked at ankle level, melting one’s shoes to the floor while up top the cold turned one into a popsicle.

Upon arriving, my American friend had arranged for us to have Christmas dinner with Polish friends. We walked through the snow to a Soviet-era apartment building, where a mother and her daughter, a young woman about our age, welcomed us. For dinner they served traditional carp, kept fresh by swimming in the tub beforehand. We toasted with vodka, and I asked if there was another guest. Next to me was an empty place setting.

“Maybe,” said the young woman. “If any one passing by wants to join, they are welcome. It’s a Polish thing.” I understood. Perhaps it was the vodka shots, but suddenly home seemed not as far away as I thought.