So many of us come to live in Mexico to take life slower, but what do award-winning filmmaker Slawomir Grunberg and his author wife Barbara do in laid-back Puerto Escondido?
Open a pierogi restaurant, of course — while still maintaining their full-time careers.
Slawomir immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1981 and built a successful career as a documentary filmmaker with 49 films to his credit, as well as an Emmy and two Oscar nominations. Barbara, who also goes by Basia, is a published author whom Slawomir credits with making him famous.
Both are accustomed to very long days and a lot of travel.
About 12 years ago, one of those trips took Slawomir to Puerto Escondido on the Oaxaca coast to work on a project about Polish refugees who made their way to Mexico during World War II.
The couple began to visit the area more frequently and for longer periods of time until they decided in 2019 to make it their permanent home.
They thought the out-of-the-way beach town would help them take life a bit easier. Little did they know that COVID-19 would interfere with all that.
The move to Puerto Escondido was supposed to happen gradually throughout 2019 and 2020. However, when the pandemic struck in March 2020 and Poland announced that it would be banning flights out of the country, the couple took one of the last available to Mexico.
Basia’s daughter Kinga Przybysz followed them there soon after.
Puerto Escondido was not immune to COVID either, and restaurants were closed soon after their arrival. Needing something to do and a little money, Przybysz decided to start preparing food for delivery in the area, pierogies in particular.
Despite the fact that Eastern European food was not available here before, the savory dumplings caught on with the local international community, starting with the Grunbergs’ circle of friends.
After only six months, there was already talk of opening a restaurant despite the fact that so many had gone out of business because of the pandemic. No one in the family had experience in running such a business, but that did not stop them.
Basia did all the legal work with the idea that her daughter would run day-to-day operations. The restaurant initially opened in late 2020 in what they call a “shack” with only five tables, but only months later, they moved to their current location in the Rinconada area of Puerto Escondido, where many international restaurants can be found.
Again, fate intervened. Przybysz became pregnant and decided to have her baby in Poland earlier this year. Basia and Slawomir had two choices: close the restaurant or run it themselves.
They choose the latter. Why, one might ask, when they already have so many demands on their time?
In essence, the couple had fallen in love with it.
“It is something more than a restaurant for us. This restaurant is proof that with hard work and determination, we can create a piece of art in a foreign country we love,” Basia says.
In record time, Casa de Pierogi became a quintessential immigrant restaurant. They found out how many Polish people come to the area, either as visitors or residents, because just about all of them come by there — if not to eat, just to look in the windows to marvel that such a restaurant exists.
The clientele of Casa de Pierogi began with foreigners who already know Eastern European food but has expanded to include Mexican residents and tourists who find they have a taste for the dumplings and the wide variety of European pilsners and IPAs on the menu. The Grunbergs insist on making the food authentically and of high quality but do admit to putting Mexican condiments on the tables.
So, despite promising to slow down, Slawomir and Basia still find themselves working 16-hour days and traveling. Downtime at the restaurant means time to spend on the computer. Juggling the demands of two full-time careers means, as Basia says, “… always have a Plan B …” for when something does not go as planned.
It certainly would be easier to have their careers and restaurant in a place like Mexico City, but the Grunbergs have no desire whatsoever to live anywhere else. And it has everything to do with the people of Puerto Escondido.
“It’s not about the beaches or weather, which are great,” Basia says. “But what really attracted us from the beginning is that people here are so very, very open and very friendly. Everyone smiles and says ‘Good morning. Good afternoon.'”
The Grunbergs will be hosting a showing of Slawomir’s film Still Life in Lodz in collaboration with the Colegio Hebreo Sefaradí on December 9. Details are still in the planning stages. You can contact them for more details at Slawomir’s web page.
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Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.