My mind has plenty of time to wander as I enter the Wieliczka salt mines in Poland. With 380 winding, wooden steps leading down to the first level 64 meters underground, it’s a great place to stop and let your senses absorb everything around you. The smell becomes musty and pungent. The warm summer air above-ground is replaced by a constant 14C. Dim light bulbs take over for the bright sunlight. The railings and walls around me are damp and cool.
But there was only one thought going through my mind as I shuffled with the other ten visitors on the afternoon English-speaking tour—what have I gotten myself into?
This is because I am at the head of the line carrying young daughter, Meg, who has a bad case of new-sneaker blisters. My aerobic undertaking looks easier in print than it is in practice. Carrying 46 pounds of pierogi-stuffed child is hard enough. Now imagine doing it in weak light, on unending, narrow stairs, with the only words of encouragement in your ears being “hurry up, Mommy. Everyone is stuck behind you.”
How noble it seemed months ago: I was going to take Meg and my younger sister to Krakow to “discover our roots.” Since having a child and approaching 40, I have become more attracted to my past. I wanted Meg to feel connected to our family history. I wanted her to see children growing up in someplace other than California.
For me, the hopes were more mundane. How much of my childhood was the result of Polish custom (a.k.a. was it really only my parents who kept a lit Christmas tree up most of the year?). Exactly why did we pass an unconsecrated wafer around the table every Christmas growing up? Is this where my father got his predilection for pickled hard-boiled eggs and fried cow’s brain? Do other Poles have pale skin and hold grudges like I do? Or was my older sister telling the truth when she said I was the only one in the entire world?
I wrote down what I hoped to accomplish by taking a young child on a 14-hour flight. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Goals can be easily forgotten in the din of jet lag, a new language, and the search for food to give a child used to snacking on edamame and smoothies. The problem is lists are a little like holidays to me. Each time one comes around, I vow to keep it simple. Yeah, right. So, of course, my list grew. By the time we were on the plane, my wish list even had us entering a small shop-- Czy s? edamame?-- only to find the owners are our lost relatives!
I have an immediate fondness for Krakow. Flower stalls fill the square, like I had always been told. The tea comes in glasses, not cups. Bold, older women really do stop to fix Meg’s hair and give her a piece of candy. My feelings are a mixture of it being an un-westernized, Old-European city, coupled with the knowledge that my family once wandered these streets and parks. When you grow up in America, Poland sounds about as close and familiar as Canis Major Dwarf. I see where their memories come from now-- all the smells, sounds and sights that make for childhood joys.
But this is also the country that made for formidable adult decisions. What was it about Krakow that compelled a very young couple, Jan and Anna Michalski, my great-grandparents, to pack up nine children and move to Buffalo, New York in the middle of winter? Jan Michalski was a toymaker, not a profession that can support travel abroad.
The Michalski and Waldowski families left Poland before World War II, so our family stories are much less heart-wrenching than many. Growing up, I heard all the Waldowski relatives speak proudly about how they had come to America “early,” in the 1910s. It’s clear when they said “they all came,” they meant it. There was a reason my exploratory letters had been returned to me months before our trip, all undeliverable. There wasn’t a Waldowski to be found in Poland.