In this tiny village in the Polish countryside, entertainment options are somewhat limited. There is one bar, no restaurant and the movie barn burned down over a decade ago.
So, New Year’s Eve – called “Sylvester” here – is a big event; an occasion to get dressed up for a night on the hamlet. I haven’t asked exactly why it’s called “Sylvester” because I immediately assumed there’s a Saint Sylvester and he was given 31 December because he liked to party.
At any rate, this is a big event and all the guys break out their tie.
This year, like every year, the Sylvester bash took place at the gok – which sounds like a pet name for a barbarian’s gerbil but actually refers to the village recreation center. The gok here is a rectangular building with a large open space, raised stage, kitchen and a small office. It’s the place that everyone in the village uses as their special occasion annex for Christening parties, Confirmation parties, wedding parties and parties. There’s a lovely and modern men’s room. The entry foyer serves as the coat closet and smoking parlor – something that would have most Americans in hysterics.
One wall in the main hall of the gok is painted with an old mural of life in the Polish countryside – folk in traditional Polish outfits (clothing wholly unsuitable for agricultural chores) seeding the land, reaping the harvest, baking bread, making music and eating a feast with the family. One gentleman elaborated on a section with three women holding flower bouquets, telling me they represented Polish women “just standing around… like they do.” It should be noted that the same gentleman thinks I’m a loser for agreeing to share in the task of feeding my son.
The party admission was 70 zloty per couple – about $20. This is not inexpensive here and that was reflected in the fact that the crowd skewed older. Admission included a table, a full night of music courtesy of the band VOICE and a bottle of Russian Champagne. Champagne is a region in France, not Russia. We’ll get to that later.
Showtime was eight. As is customary, every family brings their own food, plates, chasers and silverware. Depending on the family’s cooking prowess, some tables had sumptuous feasts of hearty Polish winter fare – heavy on the pork, chicken and beef. Others had less impressive arrangements. But all had vodka.
Vodka is the drink here, as it has been for many centuries. Drinking is ingrained in the culture and the act has been totally ritualized. Poland is right up there with Ireland, Russia and the Indian Reservation as having cultures that best facilitate a smooth transition to alcoholism.
The drinking process here involves the little vodka glass, called the kieliszek (kyel-i-shek)and the chaser glass, the szklanka (sh-klan-ka). Chasers are sodas like Fanta, Hoop or Coke, or juices such as apple and orange. In our case we were armed with many liters of a multivitamin-laced fruit juice blend, a true stroke of brilliance: the more we drank, the healthier we’d get.
Drinking here works like this: Someone takes command of the vodka and is charged with filling everyone’s kieleszek. At some point anyone at the table will offer a toast, which quite often simply involves saying nazdrowie (to health). On that cue everyone will drink their vodka and follow with the chaser. After some time the person with the vodka will top everyone off again. After further conversation another toast will be proposed. Drink. Chase. Refill. The cycle repeats itself until you run out of vodka or the vodka runs you out.
This really is a fantastic way to drink because compulsive drinkers are forced to pace themselves – pouring your own shot and drinking by yourself is rude. If you feel the need to sip something in the interim you can drink as much chaser as you want. I drank liters of multivitamin-laced fruit juice. I will never catch cold again.
If done correctly you can consume copious amounts of booze while never going beyond what an American guest at my wedding here called “the buzz of wellbeing.” The only danger in this drinking ritual is if the vodka-bearer is overzealous and doesn’t wait long enough between the refilling and toasting. In that case it’s best to try and get control of the bottle yourself, lest your evening end early.
While folks at the bash ate, drank, smoked and danced, VOICE played a mix of classic Polish songs and more modern tunes – familiar melodies with unfamiliar Polish lyrics. How they could cram a consonant-laden language into the same space allotted for the crap lyrics of Livin’ La Vida Loca is beyond me, but kudos. Every song set ended with another tradition – a catchy jig with lyrics like …and now we go for one more vodka drink.
Which is exactly what they did, followed by another cigarette, more food, more vodka drink and the eventual resumption of music and dance. Dancing ranged from the usual slow dance (for people who can’t dance) to the goofy group dance (for people who can’t dance). Being a person who can’t dance, I like this particular structure. Many of the dances involved forming human trains or holding hands in a circle. If you were lucky you found yourself situated between two of Poland’s many gorgeous women. If you weren’t lucky you found yourself situated between two of Poland’s many old drunk guys.
As the countdown to the New Year approached, everyone scurried to their tables and began taking the plastic wrappers off their complimentary bottles of Russian “Champagne”, and loosening the plastic corks. Two bad signs for any oenophile.
As previously mentioned, Champagne is a region. In France. Sparkling wines not from the Champagne region can call themselves Champagne method or sparkling wine but not Champagne. Tell that to the Russians. They do their own thing, and when not collapsing into anarchy they’re apparently laboring hard to slap “Champagne” labels on the nastiest sparkling pear juice in the world. I’d rather sip anti-freeze from Mike Tyson’s bankrupt armpit.
When the New Year arrived, the plastic corks evacuated the “Champagne” bottles with as much force as a grandma dying from emphysema. The wine was more sparklish than sparkling. After a few swigs my headache was well underway and it was time to follow the lead of others by greeting everyone and wishing them a great New Year. That involves saying a complicated sentence in Polish, shaking hands and kissing cheeks thrice.
After I’d made the rounds of family and friends, a gentleman unbeknownst to me approached. It went something like this:
He: “Happy New Year and best wishes.”
Me: “Happy New Year. I speak only a little Polish.”
He: “Are you German?”
Me: “No, I am American.”
He: (in English) “My friend… he make Ramada hotel.”
And so our friendship began. Things quickly blossomed to love, apparently, as he followed me outside, he followed me inside, and he stared at me from his table. The moment I was approachable I was approached. It turned creepy quite rapidly and I soon learned what it must be like to be Matt Damon or Spock.
At one point my new pal took me aside to inform me, very nicely, that he did not believe I was American. This necessitated the formation of my personal defense Dream Team: a brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their cousin – all of whom insisted vehemently that I was indeed an American from New York. Still presumed guilty, I was forced to produce a business card, ATM card and health insurance card to no avail. He was sorry, he said, but he still didn’t believe me.
I had very little to gain by starting the New Year rushing home to obtain my passport so as to prove my citizenship to a drunk farmer. As a result, the conversation was going nowhere – which sadly didn’t prevent my accuser, Tomasz, from wanting to keep it going. Fortunately I was saved by another lad from his table, who noticed the conversational black hole and urged me to go inside and dance whilst they chatted. Not long afterwards my special friend stared at me for the last time before disappearing. Tomasz, I hardly knew ye. But ye freaked me out.
The end of the citizenship tribunal meant more time to enjoy the wee hours of the New Year. This was fairly easy for everyone because everyone was plum drunk and felt it was time to make things explode. Fireworks are a seasonal treat here, and folks come armed to the teeth.
Different fireworks philosophies intermingled. The Light It and Run Away contingent, of which I was part, was well represented, but there was no shortage of the Light It and Hold It In Your Hand or Drop the Bottle Rocket On the Ground type which made everything interesting, festive and loud. I wasn’t fond of the Attack People With Your Roman Candle philosophy, which endangered my coat.
Now, in the even wee-er hours, the dancing at the gok was more relaxed. And sloppier. Anyone who’d been holding back was no longer holding back and was now eager to start the year by dancing with someone. There was a dance where everyone impersonated chickens and squatted. That was memorable, as was watching my brother-in-law and his cousin dance alone in the middle of the hall to no music other than that being shouted by people at various tables.
At this point, the migraine-inducing Russian bubbly had damaged my will to dance, and I was done. It was a first Sylvester, and a good one, but I think by now Poland should realize that Russia is always a bad choice for your party. The last time they stopped by, the headache lasted 50 years.