Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kiss Me, I'm Polish

At the end of June I traveled to visit family in Poland. My parents immigrated to the US before I was born, so my brother and I were born here. We were both taught Polish and steeped in Polish customs and traditions. We were brought up to feel proud of our Polish heritage, and I was lucky enough never to hear a Polish joke until I was a teenager, at which point I had only scorn for the teller, rather than shame for myself. In fact, it was as an adolescent and teen that I became conscious of how extremely lucky I was to grow up with a second language and a second culture, not to mention all the trips to Europe that came with having family abroad.
It looks a little like Ohio, but it's roughly the size of New Mexico
with a similar population to the country of Spain or state of California.

            Many people in the US who are not white and/or have an accent are often immediately pegged as “different”—my parents, for example, get asked in our very own hometown where they’re from, even though they’ve lived in the States for over 30 years. I, on the other hand, often “pass” as American, whatever that means, until and unless a conversation arises about foreign language skills, travel, or ethnicity. Despite my fluency in Polish, my trips to Poland, and, most importantly, my Polish-American dual citizenship, I have often had people say to me, “You aren’t Polish. You’re American.” Perhaps this is true in the sense that I have lived most of my life in the US; however, there is a very big part of me that feels intimately connected to Poland and being Polish. 

I always get excited when I see signs of fellow Polish-Americans.
I took this photo of a Polish flag flying below the American & Colorado flags at what must be
a Polish-owned motel in Glenwood Springs, CO.
            For these reasons, and many others, as an adult I’ve made every effort to go to Poland as frequently as possible—usually no less than every two years. As a college student, I studied abroad there for six months, and after college I taught English there for another eight months. Aside from that, I have visited four other times as an adult. Most recently I went for nearly three weeks just over a month ago. When I go, I usually stay with relatives, though I have made concerted efforts to visit other parts of Poland also. On this trip, however, I concentrated my time in my mother’s hometown, where my grandmother still lives. She is elderly and fragile, and I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.
Wroclaw, where I studied abroad in college and later taught ESL.
            My grandmother is pretty amazing. She was a teen during the Second World War, and she loves reminiscing about her girlhood, the war, and her parents. My great-grandfather, her father, was killed by the Soviet army in Katyn. He was a medical officer in the Polish army, and, like thousands of others like him, he was executed in a forest and dumped in a mass grave as part of the Soviets’ plan to eliminate army officers and the Polish intelligentsia so that Poland would be ripe for the conquest once the Nazis were done with it. My great-grandmother spent the war struggling to make ends meet with my grandma and her younger brother (my great-uncle) in Kraków, where they were sent by the Nazis, who kicked them and many others out of their homes at the start of 1940 in Kalisz. I try to imagine what that would have been like—to be taken from your home at the age of 13, not knowing what has happened to your father, allowed only a couple of suitcases of your things, and taken by passenger train many hours to an unknown city during wartime… And yet that was her life. From 13 to 18 she experienced the war in all its dangers and vicissitudes. Her regular schooling, like that of millions of young Poles, was turned upside down. She was lucky to be able to get a tutor and later to attend a business high school in Kraków—the only kind the Nazis would allow to function during the war.
            Before the War, my grandma and her family lived a quiet, contented upper-middle-class life. My great-grandfather had a thriving medical clinic in Kalisz, and many of his clients were Jewish. They spent the summers in the country or at the beach. There are many photos of my great-grandmother and her sisters in fabulous dresses and hats from the 1920s and ‘30s. She had a beautiful fox-fur coat as well, which the Nazis would not let her take with her to Kraków. My grandma reminisces about the housekeeper they had before the War, who would make her breakfast. Together we looked at a photo album that my great-grandmother put together, full of photos of my ancestors and relatives, my grandma recounting to me all the family histories that she could remember, including the story of my great-uncle Zbyszek, who died a war hero during the first days of WWII when his plane was shot down by Nazis. His godmother had named him Stanisław Florian despite the parents’ wishes that he be named Zbigniew. Everyone in the family called him “Zbyszek,” and the mistake was never discovered until he enlisted in the Polish Air Force!
            My grandma and I also spent a lot of time listening to Classical music on the radio or watching ballets and operas on TV during my visit. She is extremely well-read, and she keeps up with the news of the world, so we spend a lot of time discussing the state of the world, literature, ballet, art, opera, composers and music. Together we even attended a concert by the local symphony while I was visiting. Though she may not be very active physically any more, mentally she is sharp as a tack, and I am always so grateful to have such a wonderful relationship with her.
The main square in Jelenia Gora on a cloudy day.
An old tram car serves as the tourist info point.
            On my father’s side, both of my grandparents are dead, and I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with them. My father’s sister, however, is alive and well, and I visit her and my uncle whenever I’m in Poland. They are world travelers who have been to many unusual and exciting locations: Egypt, Nepal, India, Tibet, Peru, Morocco, Indonesia, Iran, and China, among others. When they travel, they focus on taking in the natural beauties of the country they are visiting. They have hiked in the Himalayas, the Atlas Mountains, Macchu Piccu, and been to the highest peak on Cuba. They use local travel agencies to avoid tourist traps, and they are avid photographers, so there is always at least one or two sessions of looking at photos from their most recent trips. This time, my aunt showed me her photos from two different funeral rites in Indonesia—a Hindu funeral and a Muslim one. I also revisited her photos from Cuba, which were from the era when my aunt and uncle still made prints of photos and put them in an album. A visit to their place wouldn’t be complete either without French wine and fancy cheeses, as on their “off” travel years they take their vacations in various European mountain and wine regions. What a life!
            As if all this goodness wasn’t enough, my aunt and uncle also took me on some hiking excursions during my visit. I have hiked in the Karkonosze mountain range, part of the Sudeten Mountains, many times, as they are very close to where my grandmother lives. For a change of pace, we hiked Mt. Ślęża and the Góry Stołowe near Kłodzko. Mt. Ślęża is part of the Sudetes foothills, but it really seems like an anomaly, as there aren’t any other hills or mountains around it. Probably for this reason, the pre-Christian Slavs thought the mountain was sacred and used it in their religious rites, and there are several small rock circles on the mountain still in existence. In the Kłodzko Valley, we toured the Chapel of Skulls, an 18th century chapel filled with skulls and bones of people who died during the 30 years’ war as well as from the plague. Creepy and fascinating at the same time, especially since it is still a working chapel. The nun who gave the tour pulled up the trap door and showed us all the bones under the chapel, and she also showed off a couple of particularly creepy specimens of bones, such as a bone that had broken in half and grown together crooked, as well as a skull with a bullet hole through it. The rest of the day was spent hiking, first the Błędne Skały, or “Rock Labyrinth” and then the mountain named Szczeliniec (The Chink), for all the large boulders and funny chinks in the rocks. Both hikes were fascinating in their geological oddity.
The sign for the Skull Chapel.

A tight squeeze in the Rock Labyrinth.
            The end of my trip arrived all too quickly. All my Polish friends and family wanted to know when would I return and would I come with my partner next time (the tickets were too expensive for both of us to go this year). Some relatives even asked me if I would ever consider moving to Europe or Poland again and working there. The idea is not a new one for me; sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Poland after college instead of returning and moving to New York to do my MA in English. That’s another path untaken; who knows, maybe someday I’ll have that opportunity again. But even if I never return to live there, I know there’s always Poland in my future as well as in my past and present, because I’ll always be Polish (-American) and proud of it.

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