I was 13 years old the first time I visited Poland. It was 1990 and Wilson Phillips played heavily on my yellow Sony Walkman. At my side was my moody older sister, moping because she’d rather have been on a high school France trip than dragged to some dusty village for a summer of family roots-tracing. (Life is so hard, you guys.)
I couldn’t understand the importance of that first trip at that age, at that time in history. Not only was it my mother’s first time back since she’d left in the 1960s, but just a year earlier the collapse of Communism had begun in Eastern Europe. At my middle school history teacher’s request, I kept a journal. She had wanted to see, through my eyes, the picture of a country in transition. Sadly, she mostly got entries like this:
Hairy underarms aside, that trip introduced me to a cast of characters and family stories that fill pages and pages of my writing. And yet, 20 years and several visits later, I’m still not entirely sure what it is I’m trying to say, or why. I suspect it has something to do with what Ken Burns says: that we tell stories to continue ourselves.
This week, I’m headed on another trip back to Poland with my mother and sister, my aunt and cousin. That trip at 13 was my first time seeing my mother’s village, and this time, it will be her first time seeing her own mother’s village as we start off in Ukraine. Packing this morning, I came across that journal I kept for my history teacher. The entries cracked me up. Here, a snippet of the first entry:
July 5, 1990
Well, we are all ready to go on our trip to Poland! I’m both excited and scared! I’ve never been on a plane before and I really don’t know what to expect. Dad and Mom have given me two totally different descriptions, so I guess I’ll find out tomorrow! That sounds so neat! Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Poland! I also don’t know what to expect of the country. Dad keeps telling me outrageous stories about how you go to the bathroom in small outhouses, etc. (all just tales I hope!) Anyway, I just hope that the people I stay with aren’t fat toothless old babcis! I’m sure that I will have a great time, but the language difference is scaring me. What if they are talking in Polish to me and say, “How was the plane ride?” and I don’t know what they said, so I just say, “Thank you, you too!” … To be honest, I’m excited about everything but seeing family. I’ll be so nervous and I’d much rather stay in a hotel! They’ll be shoving food in my face 24 hours a day! (Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.)
Anyway, the packing is absolutely the worst part of the trip. Shopping and shopping – it seems to go on forever! Thank God it’s over. I hope I won’t be bored like Aunt Maria says I will. A whole month is a long time to be bored! …I hope it will be fun, even though Donna will be depressed most of the time because of the France trip. It’s getting late! I’ve gotta go!