PITTSFIELD — Maria Sekowski owns Maria's European Delights on North Street, and this small delicatessen reflects her vibrant personality.
Sekowski likes to interact with her customers. Sometimes, she sings to them or lets them use her on-site karaoke machine. A Frank Sinatra tune often can be heard playing in the background.
"We begin every morning together," Sekowski once said, in reference to Old Blue Eyes.
The Lee resident, who was born in Poland and who came to the Berkshires from Brooklyn, N.Y., started the business with her late husband, Kris, 12 years ago. We met with her recently to talk about her deli, people's reaction to the interesting Eastern European food items that she sells, and remembrances of the old country while swapping stories about common Polish heritage.
Q: What's the most exotic item that you have in your deli?
A: Probably me [laughing]. What a question, exotic. Polish people don't have exotic things.
Q: OK, then what's the most interesting item that you sell?
A: I would say headcheese. A lot of people say, "What?" This is all [made] from a pig's head. Nothing gets thrown out. You can look it up. And kishke [a sausage]. I guess people don't know what that is.
Q: Are these items popular?
A: The Americans, they don't go for it because you just say "headcheese" and they lose it. The kishke [which is made from pig's blood], they go, "Oh, no." ... It's like what's his face. Who's that guy? Dracula, who goes for blood.
Q: How many different kinds of kielbasa are there?
A: You have smoked. I have cherry wood smoked with juniper berry, which gives a nice peppery taste. I have hunter's kielbasa, regular Polish grilling and krajana, which is less fattening. ... I have one for people that can't have nitrates. ... What kind of Polish person are you?
Q: Apparently, one who doesn't know a lot about kielbasa. Why do you carry so many kinds?
A: For people to try, and because not everybody likes one. The most popular is the Polish grilling kielbasa, believe it or not, because a lot of people grill it and it's good for cooking. Krajana is popular.
Q: What do you like about running a deli?
A: I'm a people person. I love to entertain. I sing. I do everything. I love people. I feed people, even the ones who have no homes.
Q: You sing during the day?
A: Of course. ... Want to hear it?
Q: I remember you were listening to Frank Sinatra once when I came in.
A: I sing Sinatra. There's an app on the phone and you sing with people. You do duets with people from all over the world. I love that. It's occupying too much of my time.
Q: How long have you been singing?
A: My God, I was singing to a glass I remember in Europe. I guess I reinvented myself because I find music makes me happy. I forget about my problems. If you're a good storyteller, you can convey the music and make people happy.
Q: How old were you when you came to the U.S. from Poland?
A: I was 11. That was in 1965. That's when the lights went out in New York City, remember [during the famous blackout that affected the entire East Coast]? We lived on Green Street [in Brooklyn]. When the lights went out, we were living on the fourth floor.
Q: How did you learn to speak English?
A: I think by watching television, and I went to Catholic school in Greenpoint [a section of Brooklyn]. The migration [from Poland to the U.S.] was very big in those days. Greenpoint was like Warsaw. ... That has changed, because everything is gentrified over there now.
Q: What was it like growing up in Poland?
A: We didn't have anything. We didn't have toys. My father was a mechanic. We lived on a lumberyard. But I don't know, I think we were happy. ... I remember my father listening to Radio Free Europe and your neighbors couldn't hear you. ... You know how those radios were in those days, the squeaking, the frequency.
Q: You always seem happy when I come into your store. Why?
A: I guess we hide, don't we? I think I'm trying to make up for lost time when I was young and growing up in Europe. You were behind the [Iron] Curtain, you couldn't speak your mind, you couldn't say this, you know? And, plus, I was a very shy person. Now, the people who know me say, "You? You were shy at one point?" I wouldn't accept a gift because I didn't want to say thank you.
Q: What advice would you give to immigrants who want to start their own businesses?
A: Research before you leap. Depending on what kind of business you want to open, you should believe in yourself, work hard, be honest and be a people person and, I think, you know, everything will fall into place. ... If you have enough passion for anything, you will survive.