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“A Sweet Tooth for Song and Music”

The following post, which I’ve edited only slightly, was published on Ricochet on May 2, 2018.  I’m publishing it again today on what would have been his 101st actual birthday.  When it comes to putting things right, better late than never. Happy Birthday, St. Pope John Paul II.


“I have a sweet tooth for song and music. This is my Polish sin.”

OK, so this entire post is something of a Polish joke. I can see your lip starting to curl, and your eyes rolling back in your head. “Wait!” I hear you shout. “I am offended on behalf of Poles everywhere! How can you, a high-toned, (green) card-carrying British lady, make a Polish joke without implied overtones of bigotry, cultural superiority, and aggression? Tut-tut. Isn’t this the height of colonialist and imperialist privilege? How dare you?”

I’d probably do it anyway because, you know: free speech and the right to offend. (Pace Prince Harry, who’s batting .500 there–thinks free speech is “bonkers” but uses his to say something offensive almost every time he opens his mouth.  Silly twit.)

In any event, I do dare, and also, here are some more reasons why:

Almost 40 years ago, I married into a wonderful family whose ancestors, on both sides, pass the Polish test with flying colors. (It’s true that some of them didn’t come from a place that was called “Poland” at the time, but the geography was spot on, even if the national boundaries weren’t quite the same.) They accepted me, and never made me feel foreign or inadequate. I’ve learned to enjoy, and even to make, most Polish meal staples, and I’m a wizard with pierogi, kielbasa, and sauerkraut. I love kiszka. I don’t speak very much Polish, it’s true, but I have reduced more than a few patriotic Poles to tears of joy with my delivery of the one phrase I can muster and pronounce with absolute authority and great feeling: “Rosyjski diabeł.” Unlike the late Mr. Right’s “barrel-shaped Polish grandma” (his description of a woman he loved very much), I don’t usually spit before I say it, but the effect is still quite good. I’m very much at home with the hupaj siupaj at weddings and such, and I know the 1978 Steelers Polka by heart.

And, to cap things off, in all the years I’ve known them, I can’t remember any of my relatives by marriage being offended by anyone, of any sort, telling a Polish joke, of any sort. So, there you have it. I rest my case, and judge myself Worthy.

Anyway, there I was, one day, scouring the internet (as one does) looking for a suitable topic and date for a quote of the day post for May. And I swear, as God is my witness, that I saw somewhere on a website that the author of the quote above was born on this day, May 2, Anno Domini 1920, meaning that today would have been his 98th birthday.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove that. It seems that either 1) I was dreaming the whole thing, 2) I was somewhat the worse for wear and I misread it, 3) the website (which I can’t find again) was misinformed, or 4) it’s like Brigadoon, and the truth has disappeared only to emerge again, for one day, in another hundred years.

It also appears (although I am sure this must be wrong) that the person responsible for today’s quote was actually born 16 days hence, on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. (I subsequently picked May 18 for my entry in this month’s “group writing” series. Not that I’m superstitious or anything. Not at all.) He grew up a patriotic Pole himself, playing football with the town’s Jewish children (often on their side), and long mourned his older brother, a physician who died from scarlet fever when our hero was still quite a young man.

At some point, as young men do, he became fond of a girl or two, before enrolling at the Jagiellonian University to study philology. He wrote plays and performed on the stage, learning about 12 languages as he went, and becoming fluent in at least nine of them. During the war, he worked various menial jobs and was hurt several times, suffering a fractured skull, and a shoulder injury. When his father, an officer in the Polish Army, died of a heart attack in 1941, he was, at the age of 20, his immediate family’s only surviving member. He found solace in nature, in the Church, in the priesthood, and in his exploits in its service. His humanity towards his fellow men, no matter their circumstances or religion, became the stuff of legend.

In 1978, he emerged as the compromise candidate, and, on the eighth ballot, Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected the first non-Italian Pope in more than four-and-a-half centuries. And the first Polish Pope ever.

The rest, as they say, is History, with a capital “H.”

Happy anticipated birthday, St Pope John Paul II. Here’s some sweet Polish “song and music” from the Andrzej Jagodziński Trio and Grażyna Auguścik. (Can’t provide a full translation, but it’s about love and lovers). I don’t rouse myself to “do” many live performances, but I have seen both of these acts (not together), and they’re just wonderful.*

*In fact, the Jagodziński Trio performance was the source of another episode of what I’ll call (for fear of offending further at this point) Eastern European Humor. We went to see them perform at a tiny Pittsburgh venue, in an event sponsored by the Polish Cultural Council for the express purpose of introducing Pittsburgh’s own honorary Polish Consul. CDs were for sale in the lobby at intermission, and we were enjoying the jazz performances of Chopin’s music so much that we bought the group’s signature CD, titled simply “Chopin.” When we got it home and eagerly opened the case, we discovered that what was inside it was actually their Christmas music CD. It’s traditional Polish carols with a jazz flavor, and it’s one of my favorite Christmas albums. But it’s definitely not Chopin. Ha ha. Joke’s on us.

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