It was 1994, and I was on summer break from my job as an English teacher in Slovakia. My friend Kathy, a fellow American expat English teacher, was traveling with me on a multi-city tour of Poland. On July 19, 1994, we found ourselves in the beautiful medieval walled city of Toruń, the famed birthplace of both Nicolaus Copernicus and gingerbread.
I still recall our visit to the Nicolaus Copernicus House, which was a charming little three story building with beautiful ceilings. Standing at the windows, I pictured a young Nicolaus looking out at the stars and imagining how he would one day change our entire concept of the universe, by proving to us that we are not actually at the center of everything.
During our time in Toruń, whenever we passed a bakery, Kathy would look for gingerbread, famed to have been invented in Toruń when an absent-minded goodwife accidentally put honey in her batter. Perhaps we were not pointing at the right cookies or asking the right questions, but repeatedly, we came out of those bakeries with no gingerbread in hand.
Finally, after visiting the Bell Tower of the Old Town Hall and enjoying its arresting view of the Toruń skyline, our fruitless gingerbread search seemed to at last be at an end when we discovered some very ornate and lovely gingerbread figures in the shape of Copernicus in the Tower’s gift shop. Kathy and I each purchased a cookie, then sat in the Old Town Square to sample our first delicious bite of the famed Pierniki Toruńskie.
What a disaster! Kathy nearly broke a tooth trying to bite off Copernicus’ head, and I gnawed away at his left leg without making any significant progress. This left us wondering exactly how old was this gingerbread they sold us? Perhaps as old as the great astronomer himself? And, if this stuff was not stale, but rather just a sample of how they roll with gingerbread in Poland, then why was this brutal, punishing concoction so beloved here? Defeated, we tucked our gnawed and broken cookies away in our bags and went off to soothe our bitter disappointment with some delicious lody, or Polish ice cream.
Later that day, we visited the Toruń Office of Tourism to buy some postcards, and could not help but comment to the staff regarding our surprise at the downright inedible hardness of Toruń gingerbread. With a confused look on her face, the head agent asked if she could please see the offending gingerbread. When we pulled the hateful cookies out of our backpacks to show her, the entire staff burst into laughter, and the agent said, “Oh my! That gingerbread is not for eating–it’s for decoration!” (So, that explained the unappetizing shellac-like flavor!) The staff was so amused by our folly that they gave us each a “Torun my honey town” sticker, which made its way into my travel journal, a permanent keepsake of our gingerbread adventure.
Over the years, I sometimes shared this silly story with the international students I taught, especially if they were looking for guidance on how best to navigate the foods and customs of American culture. It serves as a reminder of the fact that we can prepare ourselves for many things when we travel, but we can never completely protect ourselves from making mistakes when we encounter the unknown, nor should we wish to do so. The key to transforming our mistakes into cherished memories is to never be afraid to ask our hosts for clarification, and to laugh right along with them when they correct us. If we do this, and we are really lucky, sometimes we might even be awarded a sticker for our efforts!