A couple of years after the collapse of Communism, we went to visit our family in Poland for the first time after leaving. I was very nervous and scared. I didn't feel that I spoke polish proficiently enough to communicate with anyone. So much was racing through my mind, to the point where I was not looking forward to the trip.
What if my family made fun of my accent, or thought I was unintelligent or even rude for not speaking polish as well as they did? What if I dressed different? How did they dress? What sort of music did they listen to? Would I be bored? What if I didn't like the food over there (which made little sense since I grew up eating polish food)? What if they would be jealous of me because I lived in America? I was another young teenager who's view of the world was about to be expanded and I wasn't sure I wanted it to be...
I had always grown up feeling like I was Polish. But not being able to define what that meant. But I also knew that going to Poland, I would be seen as American, and perhaps not Polish. I was worried I would be seen as an "outsider".
It turned out I had nothing to fear. In fact, I look back on that trip as being a turning point in my life, and I thank my parents regularly for allowing me to make that first trip, which I know makes them very happy to hear because that simple "dzienkujem" (thank you) still turns into an in depth conversation about what it did for me and what it has and will do for my children.
First of all, my family in Poland was just so happy to see me that they greeted me with hugs, kisses, and plenty of warm greetings. They were also so pleased to hear my attempts at Polish that I had nothing to worry about, many of them spoke at least some English, and were very patient at communicating with me.
They also did not dress so different from myself. In reality, Poland is much closer to Paris and it's internationally famous fashions. My cousins were not the frumps I ignorantly assumed they would be. The only way in which our dress was different is that in Poland, young ladies generally do not dye their hair and wear makeup until they are of legal age, then they are free to express themselves fashion wise, whereas in the US, an adult choosing to dye their hair strange colors is not considered acceptable for most jobs.
They listened to some of the same bands as I did and turned me onto some Polish bands, as well, during the trip. Music was all around in Poland. In the town squares, a local musician could be strumming a guitar playing American, British, Polish, or any sort of music to an impromptu audience (Town squares in Europe are an amazing social phenomenon, one I will have to discuss in a separate post.).
It also turned out I had plenty to keep from becoming bored, because my family wanted to show me Poland. The woods, the country side, the city, the villages, the festivals, the stores, the markets, everything. We enjoyed campfires together, and since many of my family could play guitar, we sang together in the Polish summer nights, all memories that I will cherish forever.
The food, I ended up falling in love with. And many trips back later, I am still discovering Polish cuisine to be better and much more interesting than what I could ever imagine it to be. I found out several things that changed my taste buds forever. Milk can be shelf stable, instead of pasteurized and refrigerated. Pierogi are much more than just stuffed with mashed potatoes, and maybe cheddar cheese or sautéed onions, in fact, they can be hand made in your own kitchen instead of frozen from a store. There is much much more to Polish cuisine than potatoes, cabbage, onions, kielbasa, Kotleti Schabowe (although Kotleti will forever my favorite "comfort food"), pierogi, and beet soup.
I ended up coming away from that trip realizing that there is much more to life than the mall, McDonald's, and your friends. There is family which still is your family regardless of the distance, home made foods that I try to make myself now, and trips back to Poland, all the while dreaming of the day I can own my own place in Poland, as well...
To my parents, years and years later, I still say "Dzienkujem" for that trip. To my family in Poland, I say "Dzienkujem BARDZO!" for opening your hearts to me...
If you liked this post about my first trip back to Poland, you might also be interested in my post about going to a wedding in Poland