Exchange Matters / June 24, 2020

Culinary Diplomacy and Virtual Exchange in the Time of Coronavirus

By Judy Donner, Senior Program Manager, Procurement & Programming, Global Ties U.S.

Until last weekend, I had never tasted a pierogi, let alone made one from scratch. That’s when my friend and colleague Agnieszka Wos spent three hours on Zoom teaching my husband and me how to make this labor-intensive, traditional Polish dumpling. Agnieszka demonstrated everything step-by-step from the kitchen of her rustic country house in the woods of western Poland, where she and her family are riding out the Coronavirus pandemic.

Judy and Agnieszka share their homemade pierogi.


We held our blob of sticky dough up to the camera so Agnieszka could tell us if we needed more flour. We rolled the dough into a flat sheet and used a wide-lipped drinking glass to punch out cookie-sized circles, which we then held up for Agnieszka’s inspection to see if we had achieved the correct thickness. We showed her our chopped onions to check if we had prepared enough. And throughout our afternoon of cooking, we toasted each other repeatedly with glasses of white wine and said hello to Agnieszka’s husband Gregory, her mother-in-law, and her seven-year old daughter Zosia, as they wandered by to check on our progress.

Following Agnieszka’s instructions, we placed a small dollop of a potato-and-cheese mixture on all the disks of dough, folded them over and crimped the edges with a fork. Then we boiled them in water for a few minutes, put them on a plate and covered them with caramelized onions. And voila! Our first-ever pierogis were simply delicious! Of course, we toasted each other again.

This experience convinced me of the special value of virtual cooking lessons during these unusual times. It felt like a real visit into each other’s homes. It was also a wonderful opportunity to learn each other’s language. Agnieszka would show us a utensil or ingredient that we would identify in English, and we got to learn the same word in Polish. Virtual cooking lessons are a sure-fire bridge builder.

But let’s go back to where everything started. Agnieszka is an alumna of the Poland Meet America MBA Study Tour, a collaboration between Global Ties U.S. and TETOS Foundation. In June 2019, I reconnected in person with Agnieszka and her colleagues in Poznan, Poland. Since then, Agnieszka and I have become closer, and during one Zoom call in March – when we were discussing the effects of the global pandemic – the idea for a virtual exchange hit me.

Like many Americans, Poles have been working from home since mid-March, observing strict social distancing rules to keep themselves and loved ones healthy. Agnieszka is one of many working parents around the globe who now find themselves also serving as home-school teachers. So we’ve been meeting on Zoom for weekly English lessons with her daughter Zosia, who’s in the first grade.

We try to come up with a topic in advance, sometimes based on Zosia’s suggestions, other times, our ideas. Because she is seven years old and currently stuck at home 24/7, we want this to be fun.

Most recently, Zosia learned the English words for different pieces of clothing by inviting me to her room and showing me examples from her closet. She also learned the English names of fruits and vegetables as Agnieszka and I showed her items from our cupboards and refrigerators.

“This is fun even if sometimes I do not remember those new words. I like what we do,” said Zosia. Zosia is not too young to gain cultural awareness from our virtual exchanges, and we all have a very good time.

This is my first experience with virtual exchange as a participant, not as a program manager. There’s something very special about being “inside each other’s homes.” Given the current global crisis and questions about when and how the country and the world can open up again, I encourage everyone to give something like this a try and stay connected from afar.