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Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Michalski by any other name… - Page 2

Written by Suzanne Waldowski Roche
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Once in Krakow, my sister and I spend our early mornings searching through phone books.  We are determined to track down a Michalski.  I am sure we would have found them, had it not been for the little problem of there being six accepted spellings of Michalski.  Well that, coupled with the realization that Michalski in southern Poland is a little like Smith in the U.S.  


I decide to turn to Malek, our driver and guide, for help.  He is our one constant on our trip-- polite, reserved, and waiting for us in front of the hotel on-time.


“Everyone comes to Poland to search for family,” he tells me.  We are on our way out of town, to Wieliczka.  He waves his hand at the scenery we pass. “But very few find someone. It is because all that has happened…”


His words tail off, his final thought unfinished.  So much has happened to Poland and its people; it would be hard to know where to start.  It is a country that exists in a nebulous state of optimistic beauty after being hardened by history. 


We drive in silence out of the city.  It doesn’t take long before farmland and fields take over.  The villages we pass begin to take on a pattern.  A church is never far.  Houses cluster along the street, with immaculate yards and flower-filled window boxes.  Old women work out in the gardens with scarves covering their heads.  In their windows hang lace curtains.  For me, it is the first “a-ha” moment of discovery. So this is where all my relatives got their decorating ideas!


These houses, Malek tells us, stay in families forever. It is where a person is born, marries, and dies. And, if the family is truly blessed, they will also sport a big car beside the house.


From the looks of the parking lot at Wieliczka, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of cars around here.  The ticket line for the mines reminds me of those at Disneyland.  Every time you think you’re near the front of the line, you go around the curve and find you’ve only just begun.  Resourceful people plan for this and visit the mines early in the morning. Me, I panic.


“Don’t worry. Go eat lunch,” Malek tells us. “I will get the tickets. It is my job to stand in line.”  He points to a restaurant and tells us to go. We should plan to be back in an hour to make the afternoon English-speaking tour.


Like all places where winter likes to settle in for a good, long stay, the people of Poland embrace every moment of summertime.  This means all the activities of daily living and relaxation are done outside.  It also means people like to linger at the outdoor table they snagged at the one restaurant around.


Because we have a “baby” with us, a couple offers us their table.  We sit down and order our usual: pierogis.  Lesson learned: when you take a vegetarian sister to Poland, you eat a lot of pierogis.  We return to find the ticket line hasn’t moved in an hour.  And worse, Malek is nowhere to be seen.  We divide up to look for him. The tour is scheduled to begin in ten minutes. We search everywhere for Malek, except for the one spot I did not consider. 


Meg finds him.  He is at the restaurant, enjoying a coke and cigarette.  One of his “cousins” just happened to be at the front of the ticket line (imagine that!) and bought our tickets.  No wonder the line never moved; his “cousin” had a nice little business going, monopolizing the ticket counter.  Having lived in Brooklyn for many years and befriending many Russians, I knew about such systems. What I learned was this: don’t question them.

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Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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