Cultural lesson #3: A national sport

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It seems every nation needs a national sport, one that is unequivocally most popular and invested with most emotions. So important, in fact, that it has influence on the nation’s social identity. Even if you do not play it yourself (or especially then) you will get involved in watching, following, and discussing.

For example, there is probably no other country so much in love in rugby as France* (Allez les Bleus!), also no other discipline raises so much controversy as corrida in Spain. Around the world there are archery lovers (Bhutan), sumo passionates (Japan), hockey fans (Canada) etc. And Poland?

In Poland we love national heroes. Historically, when it came to wars, battles and up-risings, the win-to-lose ratio leaves a lot to be desired. The sports we love at any given time, are the ones in which Polish representatives win. Any winner – and their family eight generations back – will be showered with praise, and emulated, where possible. Take for example the ski jumping world champion Adam Małysz, under who’s gracious influence Poles not only took on the sport, but also started wearing a fine moustache. Agnieszka Radwańska’s success produced new tennis enthusiasts. And then, there’s Football – the object of long-suffering, unrequited love. The Polish team has recently won a European cup qualifying game with Germany, and it has been spoken in terms of historical significance. The snag is, these are sports that are best appreciated on one’s couch or in a pub. Sure, jogging is getting more and more popular, but in emotional terms a national sport it ain’t.

Alas, no sport has played a role as critical to Polish identity as mushroom picking.


Take our most celebrated national poet, Adam Mickiewicz and his immortal opus Pan Tadeusz**. Not only is mushroom picking a romantic background to important plot points, it becomes the key to Tadeusz’s (presumably) formative erotic relationship with Telimena – who happens to be the guardian of his future wife, Zosia (the boy got around). This is a serious national matter, and it was brought to big screen by other national achiever, Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda. A Pole born as late as 1980s likely remembers family outings in search of mushrooms, each fining expertly assessed by aunts and uncles and consumed the following Christmas in form of a pickle.

Why mushroom picking? One can never be entirely be sure. For starters, it is like hunting but without causing any harm to a living animal (alive a they are, mushrooms fail to evoke empathy). It is an excuse to spend some time with family and friends. It is an intercourse with nature, which Poles love to love, but it is also an adventure. The real challenge lies not in the act of finding mushrooms (and it is not so easy as it may seem), but in cheating the law of natural selection. You pick the mushrooms in order to eat them, so you have to be careful.

Some mushrooms are eatable, presumably having supported the survival of our hunter-gatherer forefathers. Others are poisonous, and have presumably eliminated some of the said forefathers from the gene pool. A third option is that instead of awakening in the hospital, you get lucky and get high, as some mushrooms contain psilocybin (an illegal substance, too). You can be a practiced expert in mushroom picking – a desirable status which in football or tennis remains out of reach for most of us.

If you are careful, mushroom picking may be a great idea for autumn weekends and hanging out with your friends. This we know and can advise: the red mushrooms with white spots are poisonous. For more cultural advice read the bus seats vs elderly ladies, and why visiting friends is a trap.

*Send your objections to The editorial team splits on this matter, as Ana follows Irish rugby league and considers French amateurs.
**Which, confusingly, starts with the line “Lithuania, my homeland!”, but that’s a story for another time.

Mo Mularczyk is a freelance illustrator, working between Warsaw, Poland and Birmingham, UK. For more Mo check our her facebook page.

Maja Baran is a cross-cultural coach and photographer. For coaching check PrimoPsyche, and for photography

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