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Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Michalski by any other name… - Page 3

Written by Suzanne Waldowski Roche
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We run to join the tour, our coveted tickets in hand.  Our guide is Biata, a young woman on her summer break from college.  Her English is pretty good and, if I don’t concentrate, I can actually understand most of what she says. 


Over 2000 chambers and 200 km of tunnels wind 300 meters through the ground in Wieliczka.  Excavated since the 13th century, the mines have become their own world underground.  There are chapels, lakes, a sanitarium, an old hospital and kitchen.  In all the rooms are elaborate alters and sculptures of saints.  The profound religious nature of the sights stems from the dangers miners faced.  Polish law forbade them from taking any flammable objects into the mines after a chapel caught on fire and spread throughout the mine uncontrollably for eight months.  The miners took it upon themselves to carve statues and alters out of the one unlimited, inflammable material they could find: salt.


I get most of these details from the guidebook. I can only understand a handful of words Biata says by now.  We are her last English tour of the day and she is tired.  Her words begin to include extra consonants and her vowels are back to their Polish pronunciations.  It doesn’t matter much because I can just imagine what went on down here.  These mines were dug by hand.  Generations of men went to work everyday not knowing if they would face a flood or fire, a cave-in or methane poisoning.  With all risks, it’s no wonder they carved religious statues.  I’d be carving like crazy too, stopping only to shout a few Hail Mary’s.


Biata leads us through another dark tunnel where old timber supports the walls.  The tunnel isn’t uniform in width or height and begins to feel a little eerie.  We come to the most spectacular room, the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga.  It is a 920 square-meter shrine with more details and ornamentation than many above-ground churches.  The chandeliers, mosaic-like floors, statues, and engravings are all carved from salt.  The room is a glowing, dreamlike ballroom.

Wieliczka Salt Chandelier 

“It took over 30 years to build,” Biata says, “by the Markowski brothers in the early part of this century--”  


Before she can finish, Meg whirls around in delight.  She does her own version of a Rocky-victory run up the stairs, stops at the landing, and turns to face the many tour groups.


“The Michalski’s built this! That’s my family!” Meg shouts.  Her words echo through the chapel.  It’s a miracle the chandelier isn’t shaking.

Wieliczka Carving 1

Like any parent nursing quivering quadriceps, I just stand there and say nothing. My first reaction is, “that sneaky little twerp. Her blisters weren’t bothering her at all.”

Wieliczka Carving 3Wielizka Carving 2 

Meg begins to speak to random strangers, to tell them about the Michalski legacy.   My sister and I exchange “you-tell-her-no-you-tell-her” looks.  But before we can decide, the excitement began to take over.  Even I start to think Michalski sounds an awful lot like Markowski.  I’m embarrassed to say it started to feel pretty good to think that my great-grandfather somehow managed to carve this cathedral until 1920 and still manage to immigrate to America in 1906.  So I do what any parent would do when a misunderstanding has gone on too long. I high-five Meg and talk about how cool it is to find the Michalski’s in Poland.


Maybe Meg is going to hate me someday for feeding this fallacy.  Or maybe love me for encouraging her faith.  I figure details like that will keep her future therapist busy and well-fed for years. Besides, who am I to crush her spirit?  Isn’t that what high school boyfriends are for?  I want her to be excited about other languages and places, to see the joys of traveling and exploring.  I want her to know what a gift it is to know other people.  And who’s to say there aren’t actually seven ways to spell Michalski?



© Suzanne Waldowski Roche


(Page 3 of 3)
Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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