Lessons from the Old Country

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A village in the Carpathian foothills of Southern Poland – June 2007

The mountain that towers over the villages of my maternal grandmother’s family is called Babia Góra. Witch Mountain. Wide, billowing skirts. A plump, round face obscured by murky wisps of cloud. She is a moody, unpredictable massif.

“If it doesn’t rain this weekend, we can walk up there,” my cousin Łukasz says. He takes my sister Penelope and I on a tour of the village. The log cabin in the front yard of his parents’ house was our great-grandfather’s. It is boarded up. The roof has begun to cave in.

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We visit one cemetery and then another. While Łukasz shows us around, his father, Ignac, putters around the garden and barn. A shaggy beast named Rexo is chained up next to the barn. He is twenty-two years old. Ignac’s wife, Maria, works as a cleaning lady in Vienna. Every Friday night, she makes the four-hour journey home by minibus to help with the weekend chores. In the early 1980s, my grandparents sponsored Ignac’s work visa. He lived with them in Michigan for a few months, and then he moved to Chicago. After his visa expired, he returned to Poland with the money he had saved and built a sturdy three-story house on the ancestral land.

In the late afternoon, we walk up the hill just behind their house, towards the border with Slovakia. A babushka wielding a rake shouts something at Łukasz. He turns away without acknowledging her. He tells us with a smile that she shares their last name. Because they are related, she expects him to work in her garden. Penelope and I look at each other and snicker. Our grandmother is the same way.

I knew, from a very young age, that one day I would come to Poland. Not just to visit, but to live. I grew up in a small town that was populated by the descendants of Polish immigrants. My grandfather’s family, mostly. His paternal grandparents came from the region known as Kashubia, just inland from the Baltic Sea. I remember wedding receptions with hundreds of guests. Aunts and uncles taught me to Polka as soon as I could walk. My favorite food as a child was halupki, stuffed cabbage, from my great-grandmother’s recipe.

In 1979, my grandparents fulfilled their dream to visit Poland. My grandfather’s family had disappeared during World War II, so they visited my grandmother’s family way down here where the borders are fluid. A mysterious area to my young brain. My grandmother has always said that she is Slovak. Her parents came from Austria-Hungary, but now the area belongs to Poland. There is Gypsy blood, too, way back. And what about Czechoslovakia? I would stare at the map in our encyclopedia and wonder about these people called Slovaks. Don’t you need to have a country to be something? What determines cultural identity – borders or DNA?

I scan faces and behavior for similarities. Long limbs, a high-strung temperament. An anchor to an obscure past. After this visit, Penelope will return to the US. I will head north to Poznan and the start of a new life. In a few months, my husband will join me. After I get settled, I will venture into the country of my grandfather’s ancestors. They may be gone, but I can still walk their earth.

At the crest of the hill, a small cement block marks the Poland-Slovakia border. It is forbidden to cross here. The official border is half an hour’s drive away. We stare across the valley to the peaks of the High Tatras and then down at the Slovak village. Łukasz lowers his voice to a whisper. In this village, there is a church that caught fire many years ago. It is said that the image of the devil was burned into the wooden floor near the altar. And yet, people still worship there. He has never seen it, but everyone knows about it. He leads us into the forest and shows us the unmarked place where a Russian solider is buried.

“Americans are fascinated with ancestors,” I say to Łukasz as we traipse through the forest, picking berries and mushrooms and wildflowers. “We want to know where we really come from.”

His reply is a polite nod. My grandmother told me that when she visited, her questions about ancestors were met with annoyance. Why do you care about that stuff? When everything is as it has been for as long as collective memory, there is no need for excavation.

Łukasz is a student of history. As we stroll back to the house, he tells us about our family and this land. Much of what he tells us is garbled in translation. His enthusiasm makes up for the confusion.

The family gathers at dinner. Łukasz lives in Krakow, but he came home for our visit. His fiancée, who is also from this village, joins us. Only three of Ignac and Maria’s six children still live at home. Anita and Kasia have large, piercing blue eyes and long limbs. Michał, who is eleven, has the same eyes. He also has ADD and a fondness for beer. They don’t keep any in the house, because he’ll drink it all.

Over the next few days, we climb Babia Góra, visit the local skanzen and Orava Castle in Slovakia. We drive through the border once more to visit the Devil Church. It has recently been remodeled. There is no trace of the malevolent image on the floor. Łukasz chats with the priest in Slovak. “It was really here,” he tells us, eyes aglow.

On the drive back, the conversation turns again to ethnicity and identity. The entire family speaks Polish, Slovak, and the Orawa dialect. What do they consider themselves?

Maria is preparing dinner when we return home. Łukasz asks her, “Do you think we are Polish or Slovak?”

She looks up from the large pot that she is stirring and stares off for a couple of seconds. A firm nod punctuates her reply.

“We’re Polish,” Łukasz says.

On Sunday, Penelope and I attend church with the family. Babushky stake their claim in the front rows. Children sit cross-legged on the floor. They laugh and fidget. The young priest conducts the service in a listless voice, stifling deep yawns behind a chubby hand. During Communion, everyone moves towards him in one large swarm.

In the afternoon, Penelope and I say our goodbyes and board the minibus for Krakow. Ignac and Maria kiss us and wipe away tears. “We want you to come back soon,” Łukasz says. “Come back and bring your husband.”

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July 2008

Where my great-grandfather’s house stood, there is now an empty space. “It was a danger,” Łukasz explains. “It was time.”

Much has changed in one year. Michał has given up beer for his First Communion. Rexo passed away. A new puppy, also named Rexo, has taken his place next to the barn. There is a new priest at the church. The line for Communion is as rigid as his expression. The giggling and fidgeting resumes when his eyes are averted. His eyes blaze. Taming these savages is futile.

I have lived in Poland for one year. The things I’ve learned: you must count your change. Every single time. Defend your place in line, sometimes to the point of causing a scene. People who work in the shops mock foreigners who try to speak Polish. When I told my Polish acquaintances that I feel a deep connection to this country, their faces would tighten or they’d snort. So I really don’t, anymore. My sentiments are shared by others who moved here to get in touch with their roots. Crestfallen, we discuss our unfulfilled expectations amongst ourselves. We are not special. At all. We are ridiculous.

I don’t speak of this to Łukasz. Instead, I tell him how well I, and especially my husband, have adapted. How happy we both are to live in Poland. Because, in spite of the disappointments, we are.

I have also learned that once trust is earned, you can truly depend on your Polish friends. Need to go to the hospital at three in the morning during a subzero blizzard? They will be there. People who are too friendly right away are seen as fake, unreliable. Not to be trusted. North Americans, especially, are superficial. How can you call someone a friend if you just chatted with them for a while at a party or communicated a few times on the internet? A Polish friend will tell you if your new haircut looks terrible or if the cupcakes you baked taste like crap. And they expect the same blunt, but caring honesty from you.

Łukasz, my husband, and I walk to the top of the hill and over the border. Poland and Slovakia are now in the Schengen Zone. No more checkpoints to cross. We get to the edge of the Slovak village and then turn back. Storm clouds drape themselves around Babia Gora’s broad shoulders. The air thickens. Sounds recede.

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I am not Polish. Or Slovak. Or anything else other than American. I have some Polish and Slovak roots, along with several other ethnicities, and I grew up in a Polish-American enclave. I now understand the significance of the hyphen. The effect of stories and traditions brought along with the steamer trunk. Things more precious than any earthly possession. Over the years, the tangible things disappear. Traditions evolve into something unique to the new land. Memories of adversity are taken to the grave. The Old Country becomes a mythic realm.

I flop down on the hillside and stare up through the wildflowers. Łukasz and my husband laugh and shake their heads. Bliss washes over me. Not a euphoric high, but a complete absence of anxiety. My whole being feels at home in this place. No matter what I am not.

All of Ignac and Maria’s children join us for our last dinner together. We crowd around the long wooden table. Maria sets down plates of grilled kielbasa, pickled wild mushrooms, thick bread, and butter made from their cows. We communicate in Polish and English. My errors and bad pronunciation are welcome here. After a few shots of vodka, a babushka scarf materializes. It makes the rounds from Maria to Anita to Łukasz. Maria ties it around my head. I am crowned: Babushka Julka.

I press my hands together and attempt a beatific expression. My husband aims the camera my way. The others stifle giggles. Maria’s gravelly belly laugh chips away at my composure. I press my lips together to keep from losing it. The strain squeezes tears from my eyes. My husband takes the photo. Our roars of laughter engulf the room. Breath-sucking, soul-cleansing convulsions.

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*Beatific? More like constipated. Not exactly a flattering photo, but I can stifle my vanity for the sake of a laugh.