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.

87 thoughts on “Lessons from the Old Country

  1. Wonderful, wonderful piece! I enjoyed reading this so much. I found the description of the village and your extended family just captivating – bursting with detail. Fabulous. I just wish there had been more to read 😃

  2. When I looked at your first picture,Julie, I though that you had been to the”Appenzellerland” that is the region of Switzerland I grew up and this feeling brought me your story very near. It’s not possessions that give us this sense of belonging to a place. As my husband is half Polish I also understand very well this frank and blunt honesty and I had never thought about its derivance! Thank you very much for this Sunday lecture.💐

    • Hi Martina – that Polish bluntness takes some getting used to, but now I prefer the honesty to the superficiality of my own culture. I understand the reason behind being overly friendly – to make the atmosphere positive. However, it’s difficult to know who your real friends are, who you can trust. I find this very annoying now. Thank you, as always, for reading. 🙂

  3. Julie, your photo is beautiful. Not the least bit constipated. I could almost cry with you. To be embraced by family is an amazing feeling. I have recently discovered more of my extended family; makes me so deeply happy I could weep.

  4. Lovely photos and story. As for “Don’t you need to have a country to be something? What determines cultural identity – borders or DNA?”, I don’t think the designation of a nationality defines who you are at all; after all, borders are arbitrarily invented by mankind and if you look at the planet as a whole, we are all just a part of the human race living on it, with invented cultures and religions… Sure, culture and religion have a huge influence on an individual’s behaviour, but still… the same person could be born somewhere and adopted somewhere else and he/she would grow up the way he/she is raised, not the way the ancestors were raised…. Though of course DNA plays a part, too. Anyway, I loved how this post was quite thought provoking, in a good way 🙂

    • Thank you. What’s really funny is that my Polish-American grandfather’s mother was Native American/French. She was adopted from a reservation. She had a Polish name, spoke Polish, but looked every bit the “squaw”. It’s said that she had an “Indian” (Native American) temperament, however. DNA is very influential in our behavior, much more so than once thought.

  5. Oh, how I love and relate to this one, Julie. First of all, the picture…nothing constipated about that at all. It is so lovely to finally get an image of someone who you only know through their words. I’ve worn my share of babushkas, and the pic may have made you laugh, but the inherent sincerity and authenticity…made me cry, just a bit. ❤️
    I could cite so many things you speak of here…the food, the language, the uncertainty of Slovak/Polish and in my case Czech/Hungarian, the blunt candor, loyalty to friends, the need to trace our ancestors, to honor those precious “stories and traditions brought along with the steamer trunk.”
    Thanks for this one. I went back and read it twice. Happy Sunday to you. Hugs. 💕

    • Hi Van – We’ve discussed this a few times, so I’m not surprised to hear that you could relate to this. Hopefully one day you can reconnect with your ancestry. As for the photo – I do not like having my photo taken, but I have posted a few of myself on the blog in the past. Maybe it was before you started reading. Happy Sunday to you, too. 🌷

  6. Beautiful – photos and words. When I was 18 (a lifetime ago) I went to Ireland and had a similar experience. Raised in a completely Irish family of relatively new immigrants (my father grew up in Dublin, all Grandparents Irish) I thought I was going ‘home’. It was a shock and ultimately freeing to be treated as what I was – a tourist. It’s the lot of us Americans, I think, to try and find our place in the world. And some – like you – can claim the whole damn place! Keep writing!

    • Thanks, Tricia, for sharing your experience. It is a humbling experience to realize that we are “only” Americans. I’ve actually run across a couple of people (French and Kiwi) who have gone to America searching for their roots. This may become more prevalent as more Americans are moving overseas nowadays.

  7. That’s a really tremendous piece of writing. Belonging is such a fraught question… Ultimately, I guess what’s yours is that which you MAKE yours. You’ve made a wonderful little place with this website; I will look forward to reading more.

  8. Wonderful Julie. 🙂 I enjoy learning about your European roots. They are so rich with detail: the tough dog chained up, the wait and see Polish relatives, and the slow rituals of acceptance.

    • Thank you. 🙂 Polish animals are the most resilient I’ve ever encountered. My rabbit – adopted in Poland – is a defiant 9 years old and still feisty. My husband and I both wonder if it’s the lingering effects of Chernobyl.

  9. An interestingly detailed and lively narrative of the Old country and your various connects to people and places. Right down to your pic. You don’t have to stifle any vanity, Julie, as it just afforded a nice view of your expressive visage enabling me to now put a face to your name…ciao.

  10. Once again, you’ve poked at and revealed some truths about how we humans see ourselves and others. Our origin stories take root more deeply in some of us, and following them back is both rewarding and uncomfortable, especially when those in the old country see the fascination as something silly, unnecessary, or even misguided. I’ve gone through so many of these same motions and emotions with my Greek heritage, with many of the same results. I relate so much to your post, and you’ve captured it so beautifully! Thanks for a great read.

    • Thank you. I figured my experience wasn’t unique among those Americans who make the effort to seek out their roots. It’s a lesson I’m happy to have learned.

  11. Julie, it was fascinating to learn about your journey. I had never been certain exactly where “home” was for you. Thank you for sharing this in your, as always, lyrical and poignant way with words.

  12. It is always interesting and important to know your roots, to meet your family members of different generations, and to visit places where your ancestors lived. This experience can explain a lot of things in your own behavior, habits and personality, even in your appearance. Just my humble opinion. I love your writing, it is awesome.

    • Thank you, Alexander. I completely agree with you. During my time in this part of Europe, I have seen so many of my own behavior quirks mirrored in others. And appearance…I was automatically assumed to be Polish or Slovak when I lived in those countries. Very funny to see their faces when they heard me try to speak. 😉

      • Sometime you even cannot realize how you look in somebody’s eyes. Here in Toronto we have a huge Polish community. Any time I meet some of the Polish people they start to talk to me Polish. I was surprised for the first time and asked person why. The answer was I look like Polish. Actually, I have a little bit Polish blood in my veins because of my father’s mother. But I never thought that this fact made my appearance like Polish. If I did not read your story and followed with only your picture my guess was you are Polish.

        • That must have been funny for you. 🙂 There is a definite “look” that Slavic people, not just Poles, have. I can spot the Poles and Russians in a crowd pretty easily now.

  13. The past is always with us, in one way or the other. Some people believe that DNA holds memories – perhaps!??? Whatever the case, we search in the past as a way of connecting to the present and sending forward thoughts into the future. Your blog is a marvelous and profound tribute to the stories that are waiting to be discovered. Thank you.

  14. Stumbled onto your blog via Writer Christoph Fischer (thanks Christoph!). It spoke to me on many levels – as a transplant who is constantly falling into the culture gap, as someone who is obsessed with identity, and as the friend and colleague of several Polish people who continue to amaze me with their particular brand of direct sincerity. Enjoyed this story very much and looking forward to reading more!

  15. A rich, tender post Julie
    Roots, roots… Chase us. After living in so many lands, speaking, really speaking, so many languages, I find myself wondering: Where am I really from? A frenchie born in Pakistan now living in Mexico. You placed a finger on it. The eyes. When I go “back” to Paris every summer, I look into the green or blue eyes, the chestnut hair, the fair skin, the tilted noses, and I realize: “those are my people”. 🙂
    (And, oh, Love the clouds. Almost Van Gogh-ian)

    • I believe it is the destiny of perpetual nomads to become a bit confused about “home”. People sometimes ask if I ever get homesick. Nope. That affliction disappeared years ago, somewhere along the way.

      • That’s good. You seem to have chosen the right place to live. But then as age grows on you, one does feel the “call”. In my case, living in the “South” for too long, I get increasingly… fed-up by the corruption, the constant thieving, the violence everywhere… And going “back” at least once a year is soothing. One can cross the street in peace, knowing that the cars will stop. And respect red lights; and you can call a cop if you’re in trouble. 😉

  16. Oh, and I saw your “And you will like it post”. So you made it to New Guinea. It was a childhood dream of mine. That and the Amazon. Went to the latter a few years back. Not going back. Too much misery. (And I’ve seen my share) 😦

    • PNG is very, very intense in so many ways – the tribal tension, the pandemonium, the impenetrable jungle and all it holds. That trip will always be special, but once in a lifetime is enough. The Amazon is probably similar. I realized that I’m not a jungle person, so I’ll probably never make it there.

      • Yes, the jungle is… an out-of-this-world place. And a very dangerous one. Snakes, venomous frogs, zillions of insects… All things considered, I like european forests and woods better. (Two roads diverged…) A + Julie.

  17. What’s so amazing about the idea of visiting “the Old Country” is the hope of seeing, hearing, feeling, consuming your ancestors’ experience, and perhaps making them part of your own personal history. I hope to some day breathe the same air my relatives breathed, and follow their footprints through the very villages and towns where they called home.

    A mythical realm, indeed, in that it probably never measures up to the world we envisioned through decades of storytelling and old crinkled photographs.

    Lovely post!

  18. This made me feel like traveling to Poland in the nearest possible adventure! Thanks for sharing such memories! I like that there’s soul in those words not just some objective feeling less description of places!

  19. A great photo of Babushka Julka 🙂 This is so cool ~ and I wish I could hear more about this place as I am traveling to Poland in July and very much looking forward to seeing the area (was in Gdansk around ’00 for a week). What a story you paint from your adventures in Poland, and I think it is our generation is fascinated with our ancestors and really want to know where we came from, but what you say at the end of your post is very true “The Old Country becomes a mythic realm…” and I think it is perfect way to reflect on our history/ancestry as Americans. Congrats on being Discover again as well 🙂

    • Thank you, Dalo. The WP editors have been very kind to me. Are you going to southern Poland this time? The High Tatras are amazing – Zakopane, Morskie Oko. July will be very crowded, but you can still find quieter hiking trails. The “gorale” (mountain people) are a particular breed, and the wooden architecture is lovely. I’m looking forward to your posts about your trip!

      • I’ll be heading to Rychwal and Warsaw and then countryside areas…I am very much looking forward to see the land, and hopefully will do some hiking but I think that may be unlikely (will be there for work). Still ~ hopefully I get a little time to myself there to explore 🙂

  20. Knowing your own roots is important to grown as people. If you don’t know it, you miss a fumdamental piece of yourself. My granny said that “your roots are the legs of your table” …i always laugh earing it, but it’s so true. It was fascinating to read this post Julie, your family history.

  21. The last photograph… and the explanation behind it … are just memorable… Giggles-
    A wonderful piece, dear Julie… thanks for sharing and sending best wishes. Aquileana 🙂

  22. Identity based on culture or heritage is a tricky subject to pursue for many of us who have been uprooted or chosen to uproot ourselves. Then again I often wonder who has a black-and-white sense of their cultural identity in our digitized world?

    • Good question. As we increasingly spend more of our time online, cultural traits will continue to blur into each other and eventually disappear. Sad (in my opinion), but inevitable.

  23. Ah, some of the tale to the origins for a traveler and La Vagabonde, such places to be, somewhere other than the over baked western world, to be on country. It’s different and both heart an mind know it, out on the hills with the wild flowers and the gathering weather. Thanks for the wander through a little of the past and present, Julie, thanks for some more story.

  24. My dear deer gypsy friend …I absolutely loved reading this , your spirit soaring …your photo so haunting and beautiful as if I’ve been near you before ….blessings of love Julie ….and hugs , megxxx

  25. I love the fact you went there with your husband to live your roots until you were satisfied. I don’t know anyone who actually does that. But than again, I live in the old world. I even went from my own country (Holland) to an even ‘older’ one: Greece. I really love reading the way you observe things in this world and the way you grab any chance to see new (or really old) things. It’s a pleasure to follow you! Thanks for writing (and photographing).

    • Thank you, Ber. I think many people in the New World dream of doing it, but few have the opportunity. I am lucky to have family still there, so that helped a lot.

  26. I think that you have a lovely face, Babushka Julka, and I’m glad that you have somewhere you can feel at home, even if you can’t call it home. It’s a very beautiful part of the world and i enjoyed your sharing very much. 🙂

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