Paths To Happiness Series No. 11: The Absent Guest And The Captive Listener

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Paths To Happiness Series No. 11: The Absent Guest And The Captive Listener

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POLAND

Poland is famed for hearty meals of meat and potatoes washed down with eye-watering Polish vodka. However, arrive in the autumn and you will inevitably be served wild mushrooms. Almost 30 per cent of Poland is covered by forests and here, in the autumn you will find legions of Poles foraging for mushrooms. They are taught from childhood to distinguish between the delicious and the deadly and they return home at dusk with baskets filled with chanterelles, porcini and the boletus, known in Poland as ‘the colonel of mushrooms’.

The Poles also have a curious love affair with the white stork. Almost a quarter of the world’s storks breed in Poland. They are thought to bring luck to the household and in order to attract them, the Poles build nests of wood or use old tractor tires. One of Poland’s best-loved children’s books is Bachek in Poland by Joseph K Contoski. It tells the tale of Bachek, a young boy who must hunt for a golden anklet in order to be transformed into a magnificent white stork.

However, it is religion that holds Polish society together. An astonishing 86 per cent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholics and the Catholic feast days are celebrated with great fervour. Tied to their religious beliefs the Poles have a long tradition of hospitality as exemplified in their saying, ‘Guest in the house: God in the house.’

On Christmas Eve their tables are decorated with straw to remember the manger of the Christ child. A huge meal is served consisting of 12 meatless dishes but always, at the head of the table is an empty chair in front of an empty plate: there in case they should have an unexpected guest at the feast.

MADAGASCAR

Photo credit: Annie Spratt@unsplash

Far from the forests of northern Europe, off the coast of Africa lies the island nation of Madagascar. Populated originally, more than 2000 years ago by immigrants from Indonesia, then reinforced by Arabs and Africans the Malagasy as they are known form one of the world’s poorest countries. Disease is endemic, there are few doctors and over 70 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. With access to clean water difficult, food is of prime importance. Rice is eaten with every meal, not a grain is wasted. Even the charred gains from the bottom of the pan are used to make a drink known as ranovola, or silver water.

Here families and ancestors are of major importance and this has led to one of the world’s most bizarre rituals: Famadihana.

Once every seven years the extended family will gather and together they will select an ancestor. This dead person’s corpse is then dug up, unwrapped and then rewrapped in fresh silk sheets before the assembled family members hold the corpse above their heads and dance to the sound of live music, the traditional Malagasy galegy. During the meagre feast which follows the dead family member will be told of all that has happened since they died or were last disinterred.

Tombs in Madagascar are frequently better built and decorated than houses. The Malagasy believe that life is transient and poor but that the dead must be remembered always.

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