Some day, I’ll have the technological sophistication to blog on the road. Maybe. Then I won’t disappear for weeks at a time. But for now, I have a notebook and paper and a point-and-shoot camera, and my thoughts and reflections gather and weave together for weeks, until the strands that felt clear and precise in the moment are hard to pull apart from the whole. I jot down rough notes and immediate emotions, and I tell myself that I like having the time to experience and then reflect. But in that moment between immediate experience and the distance of time, a single story can be hard to pull out of of what feels like a million impressions. “At least a million,” as my six-year-old would say.
In our three-week trip to Poland last month, we visited Warsaw, Gdańsk, Kraków and Lublin (where I was born); spent a weekend at a family wedding on my mother’s side; and then most of a week in the country, in the small village where my father grew up, in the house where he was born. We saw all of my father’s siblings (three brothers and a sister), some of my cousins, and some of their children (all of whom have been born since I last visited 11 years ago). We visited my great-aunt and uncle, now in their eighties and so little changed from how I always remember them. We spent between 25 and 30 hours on trains and buses, with two kids and no electronics (more on that another day). We visited four castles. We wandered through cities that had been 90 percent destroyed during World War II and then meticulously rebuilt by the incredibly resilient inhabitants. We visited many churches, as tourists and not worshippers, in a country where the Catholic Church is omnipresent and religious observance is strong and sometimes inflexible.
We spent most of that time as three generations travelling together: my parents, my husband and I, and our two children – nine and six. This meant – although there were many child-endorsed visits to medieval castles – that the adults had some time for activities without kids. Conan and I, without the kids, visited some intense and moving museums, some of the best museums I’ve ever encountered, all recently built. Interactive and multimedia are overused buzzwords, but I saw them fully realized when applied to telling the story of the Warsaw Uprising, or the Nazi occupation of Kraków, or the months before and after the strikes in the Gdańsk shipyard that eventually led to the fall of communism in Poland. Architecture, installations, artifacts, day-by-day narration of events leading visitors through the space, film footage, interviews with survivors, written testimonies, music, sometimes even items to handle and smell – this was museum curating at its most creative, dynamic and relevant.
There was a lot about Poland that drew me in, that always seems like part of me: the old farm in Dratów, which holds some of my earliest sensory memories (more on that another day as well); Kraków, the first place that felt like home when I first went back to Poland when I was 18, a city that puts me under a spell, where I never feel like a tourist even when walking in a throng of other visitors; the countryside we drove through on trains and buses, watching small and diverse plots passing in beautiful succession: potatoes, corn, apples, hops, hazelnuts, tobacco, strawberries. Books on herbal medicine and on wild food seemed to be everywhere – homes of relatives, even small bookstores in train stations. We ate homemade preserves and drank homemade fruit liquers, ate freshly-picked mushrooms and freshly grown fruit and vegetables. We bought freshly-baked bread every morning in tiny urban markets. Even down 100 meters under the ground in the Wieliczka salt mine, the food was fresh, seasonal and traditional.
Sometimes I stood for what seemed like hours in train hallways – as one can in Europe – with the window down, leaning my arms on the sill, wind whipping my hair, the countryside flashing by, asking my dad questions about the trees and plants sailing past. Lulled by the rocking of the train, while puzzling over botanical names in Polish, English, Latin. Those were perfect moments.
And then there were the ghosts, of all different sorts. The past is so present for me in Poland. Ghosts in the cities that had been destroyed and rebuilt, ghosts of people who gave their lives to visions of national independence and personal freedom, ghosts in the streets where Jewish ghettoes had been places of imprisonment and horror during the war. The latter visited me in dreams and in waking, and sometimes it seemed that they gripped me and held me down so I could hardly breathe. And kinder ghosts, those of my grandparents, especially my two grandmothers, who were still alive the last time I visited, whose voices I could hear in my head, the touch of whose hands – elderly hands, at once both rough and soft – I could feel on my skin. Whose physical presence was missing for the first time.
Instead, there was a new generation of children to meet. Children of my cousins. What was amazing and beautiful was the way children communicate when they don’t speak the same language. Malcolm and his five-year-old second cousin spent a couple of hours stringing together random words in Polish and English, giggling madly, chasing and tickling each other, taking pictures with their mother’s cameras. Malcolm said at the end: “I think I am very good at communicating without words,” and I laughed and agreed. In another home, my kids bounced around for an hour with four other cousins they were meeting for the first time: jumping, wrestling, laughing, wild energy. Then they hugged goodbye and the cousins were on their way. Seeds of relationship planted for the future.
And then there are the things that are wholly strange to me. That’s always the difficult part. I’ve lived for most of my life in a country of many religions, many ethnic origins, many belief systems. I believe that there are many ways to truth. I can’t know who I would be if I hadn’t moved here, what I would believe. But the certainty – about values, about other cultures – that I often encounter in Poland, and sometimes in other parts of Europe, can make dialogue difficult. Where does one even start in the face of such certainty? It’s hard to find a way into the conversation. It shuts me down, and I have to work at speaking when something needs to be said. Even at home I can find it hard to explain myself. In a language that sometimes ties my tongue up in knots, with the vocabulary of a child, well, it’s hard to say much more than “I disagree”. There is such powerlessness in being able to understand clearly words that you don’t agree with, but being unable to articulate a response. I never stay in the country long enough to get to the nuances. But I sometimes feel a disconnect between the thoughtful analysis of the museum exhibits and the conversations I overhear on the street or in people’s homes. Perhaps that would be the case in Canada too, if I stepped outside the bubble of the big city I live in and the open-minded community around me.
The tension between connection on one hand and claustrophobia on the other is always there when I travel to Poland. I pine for the cobbled city streets, the heart-stirring history, the ancestral farmlands, the family resemblances, and then breathe some relief when I return to the wider open spaces and perspectives of my adopted home. Every country has such a different personality. It’s partly the weight of its particular history, but it’s also the daily influence of the place itself. The landscape, the architecture, the weather, the way the towns fit together, the historical monuments, the flora and fauna, the density of the population. The day-to-day sensory perceptions that make up a reality, the context for a worldview.
Once you leave a place, you can’t ever truly go back. Everything is different. You see everything differently.
Which doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying. To figure out where I fit; to feel the comforting presence of my ancestors; to revel in what I love about the land and the culture; to relish the relationships that just are, that pick up over distances of kilometres and years, with a long embrace and a warm smile. And now, also to show my children the roots of my story, of their stories. To trace back their threads of ancestry and influence. To spin a thread for them, however tentatively, into the future.