A huge, hairy man with arms bigger than my thighs slammed the vodka bottle down on the table. It was just past noon. I was glad I didn't have to fight him.
"Na zdrowie," he commanded. To our health. We downed our shots. The vodka was Soplica, one of the oldest brands in Poland. It worked just fine. The man refilled the shot glasses.
As we we started swelling our bellies with sausage and pyzy, or pork-stuffed potatoes, one shot followed another. Since I was obligated to remain conscious for the duration of the afternoon I only sipped half the contents of the glass. "You drink like a woman," my host growled. That was actually a compliment. Polish women are among the greatest drinkers in the world.
Travelers in Poland must be prepared for vodka anytime, anyplace. A family lunch? Out comes the bottle. Hiking in a national park? Bottle. Grandma's birthday party? Bottle. Sitting around the campfire? An endless supply of bottles and relentless pressure to drink.
Eastern Europe is home to some of the highest rates of alcohol consumption on the planet, thanks in part to a combination of bitterly cold winters and alarmingly frequent encounters with the Russian Army, to say nothing of alternating rampages of Swedes, Germans, and Central Asian horse tribes at various points through history. Poland ranks 14th worldwide in consumption per capita, at 10.67 liters of pure alcohol guzzled per person, per year. Not coincidentally, close neighbors Estonia, Belarus, and Lithuania take the gold, silver, and bronze, respectively.
The booze was inescapable, even in the wilderness. In the middle of an exhausting hike in the Tatra mountains near the resort town of Zakopane, I plopped down at a picnic table with a coffee outside a charming wilderness chalet. A random group of hikers sat next to me and one of them thumped on the table a bottle of Bols vodka, which is Dutch, not Polish, but has the same effects. My half-hearted refusals were quickly rebuffed. We made friends quickly. The hiking got blurrier after that, if not easier.
When older Poles are leading the party, it's only a matter of time before everyone breaks out singing "Sto lat," a traditional song proposing that the participants live to be 100 years old. For a group of younger adults out in the countryside, with a bonfire roaring, it was a different story. A man with a flat pompadour grabbed a guitar and started belting out classic Nirvana hits while the pile of empty bottles accumulated rapidly.
Three shots was the cover charge to even join the party. We joked about the pressure to drink. "Just toss the shot over your shoulder," I suggested.
"No, everyone will see that," the guitar player said. "It's better to pretend to chase the shot with a glass of Coke, but spit the vodka back into the glass."
We had our choice of intoxicants. There were multiple moonshines, one infused with a pleasant coffee flavor. A classic was wodka weselna or "wedding vodka," produced in bulk by locals to ensure that marriages were sufficiently festive even when nobody could afford store-bought spirits. A clever limerick on the label suggested a hearty toast to the happiness of the newlyweds. On the back, there was some facetious copy about the drink being of the finest quality, preferred by lords and ladies. Weddings are known to stretch on until the wee hours of the morning and hosts are expected to supply about one bottle per guest to provide enough fuel for the celebration.
The featured vodka of the evening, however, was Zubrowka, so-called in honor of the European bison that roam a nearby national park. The spirit takes its name as well as its slight yellow color from the blade of buffalo grass floating in the bottle. In the United States, the original Zubrowka recipe was banned in 1978 over concerns that the grass acted as a blood thinner. It has a pleasant sweetness to it, although the subtlety tends to get lost in volume.
Around the fire, babies played quietly while their parents gamboled and caroused. "Daddy, be careful!" an adorable three-year-old advised her father, who had taken to leaping over the flames. Still the vodka kept coming.
The ability to keep up with the crowd is a test for newcomers. Hold your own, and you're considered part of the family. When I stepped away from the fire to urinate, someone shined a flashlight on me to ensure that I wasn't vomiting. Everyone commiserated in advance about the hangovers we were sure to encounter the next morning. Meanwhile, I was planning on getting up at 6 AM to go mushroom hunting.
Fortunately, I have no small experience in matters of the liver. Four years at a liberal arts college did not go to waste. With a lot of water and some tactical trompe l'oeil, I was ready to go bright and early the next morning, carefully stepping over the slumbering bodies of my fellow revelers still sleeping off the effects of their national pastime.