The second I got off the bus I realized that I had no idea where I was going. I was somewhere in Southern Poland — mountains to my right, Slovakia to my left — with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder. No idea where I was sleeping that night, phone dead, entirely by myself. I took a deep breath and started walking. I never was one to travel like this. I always had a plan. But today all I had was a picture and a mission.
I had just come off a week in Krakow, traveling to Poland on spring break from a nine-month study abroad stint in Berlin, Germany. The trip had already drastically exceeded my expectations. I found myself reconnecting with the Poland of my family’s past, and at the same time finding a new one for myself, complete with both the traditional values of the old and the invincible spirit of the new. I could go to Mass in the morning and party with people my own age at night.
I just wasn’t ready to let go of something so precious yet. So instead of hopping on Air Berlin flight 131, I negotiated a three-day delay and e-mailed a Polish uncle, asking him for any information he had on our family home.
Walking through town, I noticed right away it was poorer here. A lot poorer. I felt far from the amber jewels and medieval spires of Krakow and was immediately aware of how much I stood out. But I was never one to back down from a challenge of fitting in. Navigating the unmarked wooden shops, I found a tucked away hostel. Washing off my charcoal eye shadow and taking off my indigo Turkish scarf, I threw on my brother’s gray football sweatshirt and some battered sneakers instead. Navigating rural Poland alone I didn’t feel the need to attract unnecessary attention.
Where no one knows your name
From signs, I deduced I was in Zakopane, a funny little resort town pressed right up against the Tatra Mountains. I noticed the lack of English being spoken or understood anywhere and came to realize that these mountains were touristy for Poles but not international visitors. I felt a deep pride that this beautiful region Polish people prized was where my family was from.
Later that day I felt an insatiable urge to go to the top of the mountains that provided such a scenic backdrop. (This is not normal for me. I’m always the person that stays at the bottom of belfries and climbable towers.) But on the way up all of a sudden the cable car stopped. And this strange and beautiful feeling of calm washed over me. It was just me at the top of the Tatras. I felt a love for them even though we had just met. I may not have liked heights or outdoors but these were mine in a way — and that changed everything. I breathed in the steel mountain air that ran through the veins of my ancestors and breathed out the strength of their American dream realized.
Zakopane became a weird sense of being completely alone but still strongly anchored, surrounded with the constant company of the ghosts of my family’s past. Although I was an English-speaking island, I didn’t feel isolated. Although I was hours from where anyone knew me, and none of my friends or family knew exactly where I was, I wasn’t scared. My company as I slept was ten empty hostel beds and howling mountain winds that banged the wooden windows against their steel frames all night.
“Always with me”
The next day I set out to find the family house. I trekked up and down Zakopane’s Ulica Krupówki (main street) looking for someone who could help me match the wooden church in my picture to a real life town. At every Poczta Polska (Polish post office) I was met with sympathetic eyes that turned to saddened expressions when they all eventually realized the same thing. “I’m sorry, but all of the churches around here look like that. I can’t help you.”
I was so tired and frustrated but wanted to keep trying. I don’t fail. So instead of just boarding the last bus back to Krakow that first day, I decided I was going to rent a car and search the surrounding towns myself. If by some lucky chance I hit the right town everyone would know my family by their pictures. I asked around trying to find a rental car place. My search led me to a grungy back alley of the town’s main transit station. The howling winds suddenly started to pick up again as I felt the eyes of every single taxi driver leer at me. I was suddenly so aware of being female, of being American, and of having no idea where I was. I kicked the train station sign and felt like I was going to cry.
Suddenly inhaling sweet bread baking in a train kiosk, I decided coffee was a very good idea. I bought the biggest one they had and settled on a wooden bench to regroup. As I took a sip from the cup I saw something that made the tears I had been holding back suddenly break free. My thumb traced over the curved name of the company, “Rose’s Coffee” in Polish and the lone ivory rose beneath it.
Rose was my Polish grandma‘s name and seeing roses has always been a sign to me that she’s looking out for me. I realized in that moment that no matter what, my grandma, God and Poland would always be with me — in my Catholic upbringing, my love of pierogi, the strength of my family. Finding the house would have been an amazing experience but I suddenly knew I didn’t have to — I had already found everything I was looking for.