For most people at Oxford, third year means academic drudgery ending in exams so stressful that many literally crumble under the pressure, like digestive biscuits. It is not unheard of for particularly stressed ﬁnalists caught in the rain to dissolve completely and be washed away in Oxford’s sewer system. However, for modern language students like me, third year means something very different. For while my fellow students were returning to Oxford with heavy hearts, I was jetting off from London Gatwick on the adventure of a lifetime. And while other modern linguists touched down in such exotic climes as South America, Italy and France, I was carried to Poland on an aircraft bedecked in the orange and white livery of England’s premium carrier. Poland is a country about which little is known in Britain. Even though over a million of its countrymen and women live in our midst, a recent survey I conducted found that most Brits thought that Poland was a fictional country invented by Tony Blair in the early 2000s. To the uninitiated, Poland can seem a mysterious and opaque place, and yet for those desiring a better understanding of the country, there is no better place to start than the hallowed tradition of mushroom picking.
While in Britain we spend our free time indoors, munching down biscuits and bathing in gravy, the Poles like nothing better than to spend weeks in the great outdoors, scouring the undergrowth for fresh, juicy mushrooms to satisfy their Slavic cravings. Poland’s love affair with the mushroom goes back to prehistoric times. The Polish equivalent of the Prometheus myth tells how a demigod stole a basket of porcini mushrooms from the heavens in order to improve Polish national cuisine. Displaying their fine grasp of irony, the gods punished him with a fungal groin infection so severe that it would daily lay waste to the affected area, only for the demigod’s various appendages to grow back overnight. To this day, Polish nationalists are reluctant to seek treatment for fungal skin infections, proudly showing their athlete’s foot and ringworm, as if boasting of their body’s quintessentially Polish ability to support all sorts of fungal life.
My first brush with this Polish national obsession was not at all what one might expect. Late one evening as I walked back to my dormitory through Krakow’s cold, dark streets, I took a wrong turn and ended up in a rough part of town. Within minutes, I had attracted the attention of a group of hooded youths. I was soon surrounded, and my assailants demanded that I hand over my valuables. I duly produced my phone and wallet, only to be met with blank stares and disinterest. After an awkward few minutes, I established that it was not my money, but mushrooms, that these disenfranchised young Poles were after. I was allowed to leave only once I had produced a sad-looking mushroom from my rucksack, which I had been hoping to enjoy for my dinner. I would later learn that these occurrences are common in poverty-stricken inner cities in Poland, which in recent years have been struck by a mushroom epidemic so severe that young Poles will commit all sorts of depravities just to get their hands on a few chanterelles.
For most Polish people, however, mushroom gathering is enjoyed within the boundaries of the legal system. If you were to wander through the woods and valleys of the Polish countryside, you would not go far before encountering groups of Poles on their hands and knees, their noses thrust deep into the loam. It is not a hobby completely without danger, for the conditions that make Polish soil so perfect for mushroom growth can occasionally lead to horrifying mishaps.
Polish mushrooms are unlike the mushrooms of any other nation. Here, the mushrooms flourish due to the wet weather, the rich soil, and a political system that has consistently guaranteed each and every mushroom access to first-class education and health services. Yet in some areas of Poland, the earth is so fertile that mushrooms have been known to burst out of the ground at immense speeds and with incredible violence. The otherwise idyllic woods are scattered with the body parts of unsuspecting Poles, torn asunder in their quest for mushrooms. This danger has led to much of the country’s wooded areas being cordoned off, as one would a minefield – yet these are minefields so unpredictable that even Princess Diana would think twice before setting foot in them.
The humble mushroom is as ingrained into the Polish national psyche as fast food and mass shootings in the States. It not only provides your average Pole with all his daily nutritional and entertainment needs, it has also shaped the country’s history and culture. Over the last few centuries, Poland has been repeatedly invaded and partitioned by neighbouring powers who would stop short of nothing to get their hands on Poland’s bountiful fungus harvests. When deciding what shape to make the cloud generated by the explosion of an atomic bomb, the American scientists picked the mushroom design as a tribute to the Polish nation. Other unsuccessful design submissions included the Michelin man, and a raised middle finger, but they were rejected on the grounds that one shouldn’t add insult to injury.