In December last year, I was going through some old pictures for two reasons. First, it was the time of the year when I reflect on the past. Second, I am working on a chapter of my fictionalized memoir, Angels in the Forest, in which I am ten, and I needed to look at pictures where I am about that age to remember details.
Here is one of those pictures. My sister Aleksandra and I in Zakopane, Poland. It was one of the cities we visited on our family summer vacations. When I look at the picture today, I see it as cute and sweet, but it wasn’t this way on the day the picture was taken. I was reminded of it when I posted the picture on Facebook, and my sister almost immediately declared in her comment:
I remember that moment! I protested against the scratchy wool cape, and to punish everyone, especially mom and dad, I refused to smile!
Yes, this is true! I remember that I was utterly embarrassed to wear this Górale folk costume. I did smile, but I am not sure if I did so because I wanted to look nice in the picture, or if I wanted to please my parents, especially my mom, since my sister wouldn’t, or because someone had to smile in my childish understanding of the world. But I looked down—the ultimate sign of embarrassment for me, thinking, This is crazy!
I remember being painfully self-conscious. I didn’t know how to hold the “ciupaga,” the walking stick. I wondered if my knees would look too chubby (not to say fat) in the picture. This is crazy, I thought; I am too old for this! And I remember that the hat wasn’t stable on my head, and this prevented me from moving (very uncomfortable). I certainly knew how not to enjoy myself. To think of it, I was probably eleven or even close to twelve in this picture. The sensitive age would explain the embarrassment much better.
Today I look at the picture with additional, never considered or even expected before, perspective prompted by a question posted on Facebook by a friend:
Personally, I don’t know why anyone would leave trade Europe for America … I’d take Europe any day. In fact, just the other day both kids were begging to move to France.
This is a difficult question and a simple question at the same time. To answer the simple aspect of the question, I would say that most people come to America to find better opportunities—economic, political, religious, or cultural (maybe, sometimes). But to answer the difficult aspect of the question, I would have to say: I don’t know. Why do people leave Europe for America?
I am not entirely sure how the decision was made in my family–my sister left Poland for Germany; I left for America. Perhaps the answer lies in our multilingual upbringing? We grew up learning simultaneously Polish and Kashubian. When we were in fifth grade we started learning other languages, Russian, German, English, and French. Perhaps this was the beginning for us, and perhaps this was the end. The beginning of seeing ourselves as citizens of the world, and the end of seeing ourselves attached to the place of birth. We grew up in a cosmopolitan household, and this allowed us to perceived the world without limitations. My sister emigrated to Germany in 1991. The same year, I emigrated to the US.
More than twenty years have passed since we left Poland, but one thing never changed. We still use multiple languages to communicate. In fact, I don’t know any other family who uses three languages to communicate just between the members of one family.
Here is the breakdown:
My sister speaks German to her children, but Polish to her husband and me. Her husband uses German to communicate with their children, but Polish to communicate with my sister and me. My son speaks English to communicate with my husband and me, and Polish to communicate with my sister and her husband. My sister’s children use German to communicate with their parents, but English to communicate with me, my husband and my son. My husband uses English to communicate with my son and me, but German to communicate with my sister’s family. My late parents used German to communicate with my sister’s children, but Polish with the rest of us, except my husband. Did I forget anything? Oh yes, my sister, as an obstetrician in Germany, also learned to speak Turkish (to make her patients more comfortable). None of us speak the same two languages perfectly, and this is why we use three languages to communicate between seven people. How crazy is that?
Frankly, I don’t like German that much. My sister doesn’t like English that much. Her husband doesn’t speak English. My husband doesn’t speak Polish. My son doesn’t speak German. My sister’s children don’t speak Polish.
And here is the crazies translation twist in the family from our last meeting: When my niece wanted to talk to my husband, my sister translated it from German to Polish to me. I translated it from Polish to English for my husband, and then back from English to Polish for my sister. My sister translated it from Polish to German for her daughter. Even though this way all the intricacies of all languages were preserved best, the enterprise of simple conversation became … adventurous to say the least.
How did we end up like this?
When I think of the picture of my sister and I in Górale folk costumes, remembering how crazy the entire event seemed to me at the time, I have to admit that the meaning of “crazy” ripened for me with time—and became to represent much more than I could ever imagine at ten, or eleven, or maybe even twelve.
To answer my Facebook friend question about leaving Poland: I am afraid I don’t have a definitive general answer to this question, but I know that my sister and I followed the language we liked most to find the place we belonged to … most. Am I my language? Am I the meaning of words I use? Am I the sound? Am I the rhythm, the eb and flow of the language I love most? Perhaps pondering these questions is the best answer I can offer today.
Photo in the post is from: HERE