22. Poland – Prisons, Pierogies, and Queens

My sister Raina was vegetarian before she ever convinced my parents it was a suitable way of living. They came from a time where a man ate three square meals of meat and potatoes in various forms, and a woman’s place was in the kitchen preparing it for them. Needless to say, my sister and I are relieved to be a part of a society that recognizes that, by force, such isn’t a suitable way of living. As society evolves, people see thousands of shifts in ideals and hopefully agree that mindsets should continually adjust. Sometimes historical changes are inspiring while other examples exemplify horror. Poland is a place that has seen both traumatic regime and beautiful redemption, and I was lucky enough to visit in 2015…

A corner of Kraków. 

Before my sister encouraged me to pursue international travel during our trip to Nepal, she taught me the importance of enjoying and creating delicious food. Opting for the cheese and potato or onion pierogies, she would boil and fry them until their doughy consistency was kissed to a delicate crisp. But few chances exist to revel in a favorite food in the place of their origin, and it’s thanks to my sister’s guidance I’ve ever been granted that privilege.

By strolling Polish streets of Kraków, Wrocław, and Gdansk, a rich culture was exposed, each city proclaiming unique characteristics. There was a frequency my body that seemed to react to in each new place: creativity in Kraków, charm in Wrocław, wistfulness in Gdansk. But there, too, came time for a somber frequency; sick-to-your-stomach dread, while walking the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial Museum. Truths resonate from each and every stone on earth, and we aren’t able to imagine how and why some of the mindsets have existed over the course of time. But stories continue on with those who live through each era or age. Questions for us now are: When will we listen? What will we learn?

And though there’s time for sorrow, to reminisce and honor pain, there simultaneously must be gladness, winsomeness, and light. Visiting a country can’t be summed up in one stop.

One day I wrote a note to a dear friend with a picture of the Jewish Quarter in the city:
“Kraków, Poland. Horse-drawn carriages provide the tempo for smiling accordion players and violinists. The glow of street lanterns romance even the loneliest heart. By day, it welcomes every soul to bask in the calm of nature, experience a contrast of history and future, and remember the depravity of war and mankind. You, me, and perogies- tomorrow? It’s a date.”

The photo turned postcard I sent to a friend. 

My friend wasn’t able to jump on an international flight that very moment, but I still bought myself a pierogi dinner the following day. What fascinates me even now is how one woman who sat down just a table away was a mystical manifestation of all that is kind and gracious in a faraway friend. For some reason, she kept motioning to me, extending her hands and cupping her face. She tilted her head to the side, resting her elbow on the table and smiling with the sweetness of a grandmother. I wondered how much she had seen over her lifetime, with the various museums and heritage centers I’d visited over the few days stayed. Her eyes had so many stories to tell, but with no one to translate for us, I was unable to ask her to share them with me. So we ate our food, smiling across the plastic covered outdoor tables, she in the shade and I in the sun.

What a day. The Polish pierogies my sister had taught me to love, a woman who giggled at the same joys as I, and a peace in my spirit that humans do get things right sometimes. Then she hugged me goodbye; the most regal woman I’d come across in some time, kissed both my cheeks and returned to her world, one filled with precious memories. The human experience, though none parallel… we all have heartbreak, joy, peril. I wish I could have learned more from her, but even in this, my own life was changed.

An unexpected lunch companion. 

“Most days we are gifted with the opportunity to speak with someone and walk away appreciating life more because of the exchange. This is Adelajda, my ‘Queen’ of Poland. We were not able to speak clearly with one another, but we communicated with smiles and sign language and holding hands. The day I sat across from her at a small restaurant in Krakow will be a gift I carry with me for the rest of my life.” -24 August, 2015.

As serendipity would have it, “Raina,” (my sister’s name), also translates to Queen.

Read more about Thirty by Thirty here

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