Departure Lounge of the Restless Mind

Notices have been given. The unnecessary has been donated or tossed. The essential has been separated for efficient packing. Airline reservations have been made. Most goodbyes have been said. All that’s left to do is wait. I know this departure lounge of the mind so very well. The floor is worn into grooves by my endless ambulation. I pass the time in atonement for the sins of my transient soul. Turning back now would involve a hassle, and, anyway, I don’t want to. Once a decision is made, I just want to get on with it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have transited through this purgatory. All the little moves around America and Central/Eastern Europe. Then the major moves. The amputations: leaving America for New Caledonia in 1999. Fleeing New Caledonia for Eastern Europe exactly ten years ago. The road ahead is even more obscured than it was a decade ago. I have the same concerns, but even more intense. Ten years ago, I knew where I wanted to go. This time I have no idea, and I will be going it alone. However, my mind is much more serene this time around. Despite the turbulence, the journey has always managed to smooth out.

As I reflect back on my time in this part of Europe, a wistful gratitude arises. In spite of the inherent frustrations of such a lifestyle, I have woken up every day so very happy to have had the opportunity to experience, in depth, so many different cultures. Because – even though Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic are in the same part of Europe – they each have distinct cultural quirks. They have become treasures in the vault of my memory.

Ten years ago, in June 2007, I arrived in Poznan, Poland. Alone. Stomach twisted with worry. Could I pull this off? Was the school that hired me to teach at English summer camps legit? Would my husband leave his home, a tropical island paradise, for a gray and grouchy country? I had no choice but to leave that island, which was killing me physically and mentally. The denial was gone. I had accepted the consequences. There was no turning back.

Poznan. It was there that I regained my confidence. An English teacher’s salary is pathetic, but for the first time in many years, I was able to support myself. My apartment was on the sixteenth floor of a Soviet block building. A tiny little hole with dubious renovation and toxic mold in the ceiling. I got in touch with my cousins in the south of Poland. I adopted a rabbit from a shelter to keep me company at home. It was a hard, cold, grim place. Lots of lessons learned. Lots of laughs. Lots of vodka. Wolfing down zapiekanka in the Stary Rynek at three a.m. after a night in the pubs. Jumping up and down to keep warm. My husband joined me almost a year later. He adapted to the culture shock remarkably well. I knew so many people there. Most of their faces and names have faded. I think that, probably, they have forgotten me, too.

Budapest. Ruin pubs and thermal baths. Long walks through the canyons of neglected buildings. Ghost signs and bullet holes. Both of our apartments were huge, beautifully decorated palaces. The highest ceilings I’ve ever seen. This is why we stayed in Budapest longer than any other city. My stint as an English teacher came to an end. Hungarians are the least respectful students I’ve ever encountered. The pay was abysmal. I am not a masochist. I went back to helping my husband with his work. The few expats that we met were parasitic. We retreated into our own little world, socializing only with the friends and family who came to visit.

It is during this reclusive time that I began my blog. It was my connection to the outside world, especially during those long winter months when my husband was in New Caledonia and it was just me and Flower the rabbit. I can now state that I am able to withstand long periods with no social contact. One winter was so frigid that I went weeks without saying more than jó napot/viszlát to the cashiers who worked in the supermarket on the ground floor of our building. When I did finally venture out, other humans became weird entities. The sounds that came out of my mouth sounded unintelligible. They scared me. This warped view of the outside world stayed with me until we left a few months later.

Popradske Pleso – Tatra National Park

Bratislava. But more than that: Slovakia. Those mountains. The unsettling gauze of reclusion dissipated. My students were a delight. I found a hiking buddy. Nearly every weekend, from late February to early December, we went out. We explored just about every trail in the Little Carpathians, sometimes even crossing over the narrow range in a single day. We ventured further out, to the Vel’ka Fatra and High Tatras. Eerie castle ruins and glacial lakes. I was in heaven.

Our apartments, however. Rabbits are considered livestock in Slovakia. The few places that would rent to us were barely a step above hovels. Toxic water, battered furniture. Hot water unavailable from midnight until eight in the morning. After Budapest, it was a difficult adjustment. Despite my love for the mountains and my Slovak friends, we moved on after two years. We recently returned, for a brief visit, to lay our Flower to rest on a hill overlooking a river.

Prague. I have finally learned that the places I have an initial aversion to often end up being fabulous. My visit as a tourist a few years prior had turned me off. Too many tourists. But the other options – Bulgaria and Croatia – entailed a lot more effort. It didn’t hurt to try Prague. If it was horrible, we could easily move on. As we had so many times before. The move and integration was so easy. The petty daily struggles that we had endured over the previous years were nonexistent. Decent and friendly customer service! Good quality products and so much variety! All of it is relative, of course. It’s amazing what you can get used to, if you tolerate it long enough.

It didn’t take long to be seduced by the shadow side of Prague. My one regret is that I didn’t see as much of the Czech countryside as I would have liked. For two years, I have explored this magical city, falling more in love with it each time. So many hidden corners continue to reveal themselves. It is here, in this enchanted realm, that I will while away the remaining days until I am transported into the next phase of this astonishing journey.

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.

The Colors of Autumn

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Wielkopolska National Park, Poland – October 2007

Train to Mosina, and then the blue trail all the way to Stęszew. Thirteen kilometers. I scrawled this on a note to my roommate and told my Polish friends. You shouldn’t hike alone out there, they warned me. I reminded them that my husband hadn’t yet arrived and that none of them wanted to accompany me. I need some air, a walk in the forest. It’s Saturday. There will be others on the trail. I’ll be fine.

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Gold is the color of autumn in Poland. Diffuse sunlight filters down through the trees. Every possible hue of brown lies under my feet. What has already fallen is just as beautiful as what hangs on. Small lakes appear behind the trees. Families stroll the path before and behind me, until the trail splits. They take the shorter, more popular yellow trail. Their voices fade and disappear.

The woods close in around me. The path widens to a two track. The sound of a radio, wheels turning on earth. I step aside and raise my hand in greeting. Beer stench wafts out of the passing window. I keep my eyes on the ground. My stomach constricts. I duck behind a tree. The car moves forward about a hundred meters, then the tail lights surge bright red. Slow reaction time is a good sign, but there are two of them. The car idles. I move further off the trail and crouch behind some brush. And then, miraculously, family voices. The car moves along. I emerge from the forest. The family has paused at the turnoff to the village of Łódź. They don’t acknowledge me as I pass. Continuing along the road would bring me out of the forest, but it’s also the way the car went. The blue markings on the trees veer left. And I follow.

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Thick gray clouds hang low over the village. Neither sound nor motion emanates from the homes or gardens. Do eyes peer at me from behind those curtains? The famous 17th century wooden church appears at the junction of the road to elsewhere. The doors are firmly shut. I cast no looks over my shoulder as I make my way back to the trail.

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I emerge from the forest into sunshine. The last of the trail passes by a narrow lake. Ponies graze in the pasture beside it. I look behind me once, to the dark forest. No, I won’t wander into the deep woods alone again.

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The train station in Stęszew is the usual grim cinder block construction found in most Polish small towns. Dubious puddles in the corners. Angry tags scrawled on dingy walls. Behind grimy glass, the obligatory troll hunches over a tattered tabloid magazine, conveniently oblivious to the beer-swilling, tracksuit-sporting hooligans who have congregated at the entrance. And to my presence before her.

“Przepraszam.” I slide some bills under the window. “Do Poznania, proszę.”

The sigh of a thousand lost battles. The tabloid is laid aside. Ticket and change is shoved under the window.

I turn away and walk out to the platform. Tendrils of cold begin to seep into my bones. I stare at the clock. The train is already late, but this is normal for Poland. What if there was no way out of this place?

In my mind, wisps of a scene coalesce:

She can hear it in the distance. A soft, percussive churning. The hooligans and the old women have left, taking their jeers and taunts with them. The clock continues to tick, but does not change. 3:52 PM. She stares down the tracks, which stretch into oblivion. An unfamiliar hue appears on the horizon. It reminds her of alienation. She takes a step back. Maybe there is no better place. 

A shrill whistle pierces the air. Steam clouds over the forest; a flash of steel. The 3:52 rounds the bend.

She steps onto the tracks and spreads her arms in welcome.

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The shrill whistle of a vintage train snaps me out of the morbid haze. The acrid smell of coal fills my throat. The engine’s chug is a jubilant sound. I cross the tracks, step inside, and take a seat. What an unexpected delight to carry me home.