I am feeling weepy, as I sit in the Munich airport on a layover that eventually gets me back to Asia (with a couple of days in Hong Kong) before heading home to Singapore. Maybe it’s the pint of Erdinger that I am drinking…or more so, perhaps the plethora of emotions and memories that I’ve experienced over this past weekend while meeting with relatives in and around Warsaw, Poland. It’s been a short, but amazing three-day stopover after a business trip to England. The weekend side trip was planned at the last minute in an effort to learn more about my great-grandmother Bronislawa and the land in which she was born.
Weepy is not really my style. But, as I came to the end of my time in Poland today walking around Warsaw and enjoying the cafe scene in Old Town – a place that reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans – I found myself tearing up and on the verge of crying all day. I was especially emotional with a not-so-pleasant text and phone exchange with my kids, both of which are back in Singapore. My son Tyler is home for the summer, and he will be meeting up with me in Hong Kong for a couple of days. I’m excited to have some one-on-one time with him. My daughter, however, is not so happy that I’m taking him away from her in Singapore. He just got there, and she hasn’t seen him since Christmas – so I get it. But, he’ll be spending the whole summer with us, so there will be plenty of time to re-connect.
What makes this mini-quarrel even more emotional for me than it normally would, I think, stems from my experiences over this past weekend in Poland. The importance and priority of positive and regular connections with family in the lives of the people that I met was evident. It made me take a hard look at my own family connections, and the impact that living so far apart has had on our lives.
These Polish relatives made a deep impression on me. Many of them arranged their schedules and time around my visit, including the younger generation who served as the translators. None of us even knew that the other existed until very recently. But, in a two-day period, I met with, stayed overnight at, and had tea, lunch, dinner and dessert (and more dessert and more dessert) with about 30 distant cousins there, both young and old. I was hugged and kissed, taken care of, well fed, driven to locations where generations before had lived and grave sites where they were buried, and shown pictures and told stories about my great grandmother, her parents and eight siblings.
Many times during the weekend, I also found myself thinking about my deceased grandparents on my mother’s side, both of which had parents that settled in the US from Poland, including Bronislawa. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was more educated than I remembered in my youth on what it meant to be Polish. I recognized much of the cuisine that existed on the Polish menus at restaurants that we visited, including pierogi, gaumpki and nalsniki (although spelled differently I think.) And, at a 14th birthday party for a distant cousin’s son, I was even able to sing along in Polish, as he blew out his birthday candles. This was a particularly proud moment for me, as most of the other people in the room did not speak English – so I felt just a bit more connected. So, thank you Grandma and Grandpa Oldenski for passing down some of your culture to our family.
I have to say, however, there was one surprising memory buried somewhere deep in my sub-conscious that came to the forefront over the weekend. It was advice that my jovial, full-busom, sweets-loving grandmother would give. “Remember, it’s dessert before dinner,” she would always tell me. And although I have never been a big sweets person (give me a bag of potato chips and I’ll eat the whole thing in one seating), I can appreciate the cultural implications much better now. For, every house that I visited laid out a spread that included at least one, if not three or four plates crammed full with layered cakes, pastries, cookies and candies. I’ve never seen so much sugar in one place at one time. I did Grandma Oldenski proud and was sure to indulge as I could…I couldn’t be rude, could I? It was a part of the ritual of connecting. So much for quitting sugar!
There were so many other rediscovered nuances and new things that I absorbed while there as well. Here is my top ten list of “things that I learned during my weekend in Poland”:
#10: That my great-great-grandmother Joanna studied art in France, then went on to marry and have nine children that survived, and five children that died.
#9: That my great-great-grandfather was once considered a noble and owned quite a bit of land. Unfortunately, he had a gambling problem and lost his land three times in poker matches. The first two times, Joanna’s brother, who was a judge, helped him out. The last time, however, he lost it all – to a priest of all people!
#8: That even to this day, Catholicism is as much a part of the cultural psyche, if not more so, as the food. I saw at least 30 small shrines featuring the Virgin Mary or the crucifix decorated with colorful streaming ribbons on my 5-hour bus trip between Warsaw and Augustow where many of my relatives live.
#7: That my great-grandmother’s name is pronounced “brawn-i-swa-va.” In the US, she was simply called Blanche…much easier to pronounce, I guess.
#6: That the more endearing way to say grandma in Polish, which is spelled Babcia, is “bup-cha” and not “bup-ca” which is what we grew up calling Blanche.
#5: That my 5 foot 9 inch height and brown eyes were definitely not inherited from this side of the family. Time and time again throughout the weekend, I was introduced to family members with piercing blue eyes, the color of my mother’s.
#4: That some form of red hair is popular with many women in Poland, including some of my relatives. Blanche had red hair as well.
#3: That as much as I try, it will never come natural to pronounce the letter “z” and “w” properly in many Polish words and names.
#2: That you’ll never truly know what happened in the past. In trying to get to the truth on how my great-grandmother got to the US and married my great-grandfather, I heard four or five different stories that each storyteller swore was fact.
#1: That although people are partially made up of the people in the past, what really matters are the people in the present. Having met quite a few of those people over the last couple days, I am truly honored to say that I am a part of this family line.
I think I’ll celebrate with some dessert. After all, it’s almost dinnertime!