Twelve years ago today, Alex and I got engaged. We were visiting Poland together, and we went to the mountainous city of Zakopane with my babcia, Musti.
We went up a mountain in a cable cart to catch a great view of the city. My grandmother was working the camera while Alex and I posed with the mountains in the background. When I saw the photo later, I noticed Alex holding my left hand and cupping his fingers to make it look like he was about to put a ring on my finger. A wonderful engagement photo … it would’ve been, had he proposed at that time, but he didn’t. He said later that he meant to, but he chickened out! He had my grandmother running the video because I had said I wanted the moment captured on film, but when it came time to do it, he didn’t have the nerve. I imagine having my grandmother there didn’t help.
But at the time, I knew nothing of his scheme, so we went back to the hotel, which was a cozy wooden log cabin, and after dinner, Musti turned in while Alex and I went for a stroll down the street. It was dark, and only one street really had anything going on. In one of the windows we noticed what at first looked like tortillas, which was great because Alex had tried to explain to my family the traditional food of his country. So I’m thinking, I’ll just go in and ask the lady behind the counter what she calls them in Polish, and we’ll have the mystery clarified in not time.
We enter the delicatessen, and I ask the lady in Polish what she calls “those things”, pointing to the foodstuff in the window. She looks at me as if I had just introduced myself as an alien from outer space, waiting for the catch to the joke. When she sees that there’s no catch and that I’m genuinely waiting for a response, she slowly says “nalesniki”. Now, nalesniki are crepes, not tortillas. But the thing is that if I’m Polish enough to talk to her in Polish, I am Polish enough to know what nalesniki look like, since they are a classic staple of the Polish kitchen.
To give you a comparison, imagine being in the United States, and asking with a nice southern draw or New York accent (or some other clearly native American accent) “what’s that?” as you point to a hamburger on a McDonald’s menu. You’re either wondering where the person learned such good English, or you’re wondering where they’ve been sheltered all of their lives. This is how I felt in that deli.
So, mortified, I smiled and thanked her, turned on my heel, grabbed Alex by the elbow and whispered that we were out of there! Of course I knew what nalesniki were! How did I not make the connection for myself? How did I not compare tortillas with nalesniki on my own? The main difference is that nalesniki tend to be sweet.
So we are walking down the street, the embarrassment slowly fading away, as a huge pine tree comes into view. Now, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the decorations on this tree were butt-ugly. There were two different types of lights strung on it, one set with huge color lightbulbs, the other with small lights. And they weren’t evenly distributed either. It all looked like an afterthought. And I commented on the tree to Alex, who took that to mean, “let’s get closer to it”.
I think I was still commenting on how ugly the tree looked when Alex picked me up and lifted me to stand on the bench surrounding the tree. As I’m standing there looking down at him, he pulls a little box from his jacket and asks me to be his wife. I laughed, I cried, I said yes!
The next day, we returned with Musti to recreate the moment. She took a photo of us under the ugly tree, me with my engagement ring already on.
When I had shown the ring to my grandmother, expecting the usual reactions of excitement that I’ve gotten used to seeing on American TV, I was disappointed. My grandmother glanced at the ring on my finger and said that it was a nice looking ring.
I thought maybe she misunderstood its significance, so I said that Alex and I were now engaged. Apparently, I had failed to remember one very important cultural detail…. “the proposal” is not a “thing” in Poland like it is in the U.S. Couples get engaged when they mutually come to the decision to stay together, and this is usually announced and celebrated via an engagement party. As it turns out, Alex had shown Musti the ring on the train ride to Zakopane, making it even less surprising for her. And since she was not aware of the American significance of the proposal, she didn’t think to even act happily surprised for me.
Luckily, my mom knew better, and I remember a general sense of joy from the other end of the phone when I called to tell her about our engagement.
This was December 12, 2000…. Twelve years ago today! Two and a half years later, we were married.
Happy Engagement Anniversary, Baby! I love you!