Last October on a train heading to the airport in Casablanca, Morocco, I sat next to a fellow American named Zofia Stark, a student at the US Naval Academy currently studying abroad. As we traded introductions, Zofia mentioned her Polish roots and her mother Beata's sixty-plus (correct: six-zero) cousins who still live in the country. Before we parted ways, Zofia suggested I stop by and see some of them next time I'm near Poland. Eight months later Grzegorz, husband of Marzena, one of the sixty cousins of Beata, the mother of Zofia, waited for me with a smile and a handshake at an airport along the Baltic Sea in northeast Poland.
Grzegorz was a thirty year veteran of the Polish Navy, now serving as a warship inspector in the town of Gdynia, the Polish equivalent of Annapolis- a place dedicated to the Navy, it's ships, academies and people. Marzena welcomed me with excited Polish shrieks and big hugs into their second floor flat on a quiet apartment complex near the town center. Marzena didn't speak English but that didn't stop her from taking me in as her long lost Polish son, and before I dropped my bags I was plates deep in local tomato soup, dill marinated chicken and mushrooms, fresh mozzarella and a garden salad, eating through the specialities to the pure delight and wide grin and Polish exclamations of Marzena who looked on with pride. "Chicken is good!" I gestured to Marzena with a thumbs up. She beamed and looked at her husband who looked back at me. "Good! Finish it." The Polish naval vet replied with a smile. I laughed until I realized they were serious. Five plates later and chicken gone, I tapped out and passed out on the couch that would become my bed, waking up an hour later to the family ready and waiting to show me the harbor and boardwalk, downtown and beachside of the city, introduce me to their lives and their world in Gdynia, Poland.
I was only in Gdynia for a couple days en route to my next tournament, but that was enough to experience the way Zofia and her mother talked about Polish people and their culture. I was one of them, given a key to the house a bus pass and a map, careful directions on what to see in nearby Gdansk, what to eat (potatoes), where to go in the neighboring village of Sopot. Smiling with frenetic spurts of excited Polish, Marzena filled me up on chicken and spinach dumplings, pork schnitzel and dill spread, spring salads and cheese blintzes.
After dinner on my last night, the family showed me a photo album from Beata's last visit and I took them through a slideshow of my sisters wedding, Grezgorz translating my commentary for Marzena who smiled and sighed with Polish satisfaction as my family photos slid across the screen. We had met less than two days earlier, and here we were. The Polish family and their son for the time being, bunched together at the dining room table.
Before I went to bed, Grzgorgz appeared at the couch with a gift- a hat bearing the seal of the Polish Navy, and a coffee mug with his official title and the seal printed across it. In the living room of his third floor apartment in the sleepy industrial town in Gdynia, the decorated Navy vet and husband of Marzena, a cousin to Beata, the mother of Zofia who I just happened to sit next to on a train last fall in North Africa thanked me for coming to visit and hoped I would come to Poland again. I tried to tell him how I felt and how special our time together has been and how I don't think I can look at another potato again for a long time. We smiled and shook hands and I put on my new hat and promised his Naval mug would be on my next desk, wherever that desk may be.
For the "Friends I've Met" section of my blog, I ask each host to tell me why they decided to help me out. Grzgorz handed me a piece of paper with his response. On it he wrote his favorite Polish saying: Gość w dom, bòg w dom. He explained, "'Quest at home, God at home'. It means always welcome quests with honors, respect, and a smile."
I looked up as Grzgorz and his wife joined together and chanted for me one last time, their voices filling the living room of their quaint suburban Gdynia apartment: "Gość w dom, bòg w dom!!!"