The smells of basil, garlic and bubbling tomato sauce filled the picture-perfect Mississauga home as I made my way carefully through the kitchen, introducing myself to relative after relative. It was my first Italian Christmas, and I was excited -- and a bit nervous. You see, I was dating Jenna for only a few months before coming over to her parents' to share the holiday, and this would be my big chance to make a great first impression on the famiglia.
"If you forget their name, just go with 'Tony' and you'll be fine," I remember her joking. (The statistical probability actually worked out to about one in five.)
She told me to prepare for a meal that wouldn't stop until I couldn't eat anymore, and then some. (She wasn't kidding.) There were platters of antipasto, rigatoni, stuffed mushrooms and more -- and an unforgettable tiramisu that came at the end. It was a far cry from the traditional celebratory Polish dinner I was used to, piled high with pierogi, potatoes, anything and everything you can throw dill into, and my all-time favourite -- barscz, a bright red beet soup that can (when done right) bring tears to this grown man's eye.
As the resident Pole, I took it upon myself to bring a bit of my culture into the mix -- a stack of opłatki, thin wafers ritually broken and shared among loved ones before Christmas dinner, often with a wish of well-being and good fortune.
Well, let's just say that we've since celebrated several Christmas dinners, each more memorable than the last. Now together four years -- me, the product of two immigrant Poles and Jenna, a second-generation Canadian by parents of Italian descent -- we've done our share of cultural mixing and mingling.
Making pierogi, because of course I am.
We don't have a cultural blueprint to follow
In our parents' generation, people often coupled up based on their shared background. Sure, in Poland's monoculture -- still largely unchanged -- it would have been fairly hard for my parents to shack up with someone who wasn't white, Catholic and mixing up some wisniak (cherry liqueur) in their kitchen cabinet.
But the story remains the same even among those of European descent who grew up in Canada, like Jenna's parents. As first-gen Canadians born to Italian immigrants, they lived in a town surrounded by other Italians... you get the picture.
If you or your parents immigrated to Canada, this isn't exactly news. For better or for worse, keeping relationships within a culture can be seen as convenient, comfortable and maybe even somewhat expected of you (especially if you had traditional parents) -- but it also makes it easy to keep one's culture alive. Our parents had a clear blueprint for passing on their traditions, something the growing number of culturally mixed couples like us simply don't have.
It's about more than pierogi or pasta -- stirring our cultural pot is about picking and choosing the values we want to carry forward as part of our new identity with the ingredients our parents gave us.
Stirring the pot
The two of us quickly realized that while some traditions would become a core part of our lives, others will have to fade or disappear altogether. And that's OK.
Some traditions were easy wins. Name days (celebrated on the feast of one's namesake patron saint), for example, are already shared between our backgrounds, as are most Catholic holidays. We also both love our food, so it didn't take long for us to spice up our relationship with culinary traditions, a priority for our parents (the twist being that I love pasta with the fervor Jenna reserves only for cabbage rolls). My cultural adoptee, sugo rosso? Off the hook, I assure you. We can rest easy that these aspects will be kept alive.
My first time canning tomatoes didn't turn out so well -- a jar exploded in my kitchen cabinet like a grenade.
Other traditions, however, don't mesh with our shared values. While we both remember attending church regularly as kids, that's not a tradition that we've carried into our lives together. We won't be having a church wedding (sorry, Babcia) and we're not sure yet if we're going to raise our children Catholic.
Then there are the parts of our culture that we don't have much choice about. Indeed, probably the most painful thing to admit is that our kids might not grow up knowing Italian or Polish as a first (or even second) language, whereas our parents made a point of speaking it in the house. Don't get us wrong -- we'll do our best to send them to Italian or Polish school on the weekends, but prioritizing French would give them more options growing up.
In the end, it's about more than pierogi or pasta -- stirring our cultural pot is about picking and choosing the values we want to carry forward as part of our new identity with the ingredients our parents gave us.
Christmas dinner has turned into an interesting hybrid of Polish and Italian cuisines.
Polish + Italian = ?
It's a story as old as the country itself -- immigrant cultures meeting and becoming one. In Canada we are free to enjoy, appreciate and celebrate the best of both our worlds, and in the choice we have the freedom to choose the values we want to pass on.
In the end, we're not Italian or Polish, or even Italian and Polish, but something else altogether -- Canadian, unique in the differences that make our life and our love that much more wonderful.
As we begin the next stage of our lives together (she said yes last night!) we are excited to bring our parents' traditions -- and ours -- along for the ride.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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