Sept 1st 2007
“Gorale” are the equivalent to “highlanders”. They are a tough breed of warm hearted mountain people who eek-out a way of life -and living- in the mountainous regions of southern Poland. They are known for their dry, sardonic sense of humor and superior weather forcasting skills.
Most Goralie have smallish plots of land where they raise a few pigs or sheep and grow a bit of veg.
Many are skilled foresters and horsemen, good builders and general ‘all-rounders’ in the art of survival – at high altidudes.
Polish winters can dump one or two metres of snow on the Tatra mountains and this can last for 4 or 5 months, with temperatures of 20 degrees below zero centigrade being fairly typical.
I have met a fair number of Goralie since first coming to Poland in 2001 – and although I find it hard to understand their strong regional accents, I do not find it hard to understand their stoic love for the highland way of life and landscape in which they belong.
The high Tatras on the Polish Slovak border are one such landscape. A fantastic series of wild, jagged and awesome peaks, that suddenly bolt up from the surrounding pleins like a film set for Lord of the Rings.
Goralie move around this landscape with a certain sense of ease and confidence. They point out special geographical features and historical sites – with the pride and knowledge that comes with generations of first hand contact with this wild and unforgiving terrain.
One of the trade marks of these mountain people is the Osciepek cheese. A sheeps milk, smoked soft cheese, known over the length and breadth of the Country. Their yellowy rinds carry a traditional decorative design – and although popular with tourists and townsfolk – have formed an essential part of the Gorale diet for generations.
When visiting the mountains, one first identifies the osciepek’s presence by the unmistakable smell of smouldering pine logs that exudes from the little wooden huts where the sheep’s milk is curded and hung over the smoking embers, to take-on the unique flavor and texture that defines the authentic product.
Crouched around the flickering fire, Goralie men and women, often dressed in their traditional woolen costumes, exchange news and stories of the mountains.
Many of their relatives however, have -over the years- forsaken the rigors of the land and headed for the United States, where they have landed-up working in the air conditioned offices of Chicago highrises.
One could hardly devise a more contrasting set of work environments, or indeed a more contrasting set of life expectations. Yet if one was to consider which of the two lifestyles is likely to be the most enduring, it presents an interesting conundrum.
An office worker in an air conditioned Chicago high rise is working in an almost entirely sterile ‘virtual reality’ environment entirely dependent upon huge levels of mined energy – and almost no contact with the natural world. Even the food consumed in this environment is likely to be genetically modified and heated in a microwave oven.
Back in the Tatra Mountains, the Gorale relative is working in an ‘absolute reality’ environment; in a wooden hut heated by a few pine logs and eating food hand crafted from the milk of the native mountain sheep. Actions representing a close to zero carbon footprint.
In a curious twist of fate – the mountainous Gorale terrain takes on a pinky mystical hue at sunrise and sunset, resembling the romantic aspirations of a Hollywood vision of Camelot – the mythical land of hope and fulfillment.