BootsnAll Travel Network

Everybody's Related to Aliens

This is the story of my three week trip to Poland. I'm retracing my ancestry back to a land where nothing makes sense because everyone speaks Polish. Here in Poland, life is a plate of pierogies. But unlike Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, sometimes you still don't know what you've got even after you've bitten in.


October 26th, 2007

There are three pages to this travelogue:

Page 1 describes the world of genealogical research and my orientation to Poland.

Page 2 describes the hardships of language barriers and the search for long-lost cousins.

Page 3 describes my return home to Chicago and reflections on my trip.

Apparently, you need to click the “Previous Entries” link at the bottom of each page to move to the NEXT page… I didn’t make the rules.

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Genealogist’s Neck

October 27th, 2007

Most of us have been told at some point in our lives, “never forget where you came from.” The longer you’ve lived, the more eclectic the mix of hellos and goodbyes, chicken pot pies, black eyes, and alibis that make up the motley stew of your character. And somehow, if you make it alive through the most trying times, you might even somehow believe you’re better for it.

Before this jumbled up world has a chance to mold us into hardened criminals or (more optimistically) functionally dysfunctional progenitors of our own children, we once looked up from a cradle at ancestral eyes, in some house, in some place anywhere in the world. And these eyes saw their own range of experiences, which may have been wildly different from our own. The bearers of these eyes may have not made history, but they witnessed it.

First thing I remember, I looked across the horizon and saw a parade of lights marching across the nighttime sky. I was two years old at the time. It wasn’t until I was twenty nine that I realized this had been Disney World, and thankfully, I had gotten out of there alive.

A few years later, my mom sent me a black and white picture in the mail of her as a baby, held by my great-grandfather, Ignacy (“Nick”), a man who died a year before I was born. My mom and dad each are full of “before you were born” stories. But somebody was telling “before you were born” stories before they were born?

My first clue to prehistoric times (i.e., before MY history) was that my great grandfather, Ignacy, had been a copper miner in Calumet, Michigan. As luck would have it, there’s a mining museum which claims to have employment records from miners who worked in the area, some one hundred plus years ago… As I’d been told that genealogical research is about being about turning over every stone, I knew that this stone had to be overturned.

Without recreating the tedium of a summer’s research, I’ll tell you how I got to Poland in a few short entries. You won’t know to be thankful that you’ve been spared the pain of “genealogist’s neck.” That is, unless you too are inspired to spend the sunlit summer hours indoors, digging through databases and poring over microfilm of past century church records.

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Mamma Never Told Me She Was an “-owski”

October 28th, 2007

My brother, who lives in Montana, doesn’t have a telephone. But, every once in a while (I’m using the term “a while” very loosely here) he’ll show up unannounced at my doorstep. When I’m lucky, I’m actually home when he shows up, and get to spend some time with the rascal before he drives another thousand miles down the road.

It was a frosty April in Chicago, and this time I actually had some advanced warning that my brother was on the way. Unlike other warm-blooded mammals, my brother doesn’t need heat to survive. So, at the top of his list of travel itineraries was a trip to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, where the bitter early spring cold ensured that all the attractions would be closed. It was a long drive, but we wound up where we aimed, at the copper mining archives at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan.

Some people find that their life calling is juggling knives and eating fire for a living; others seek control of money and power. At the archive, we encountered a man who was meant to be a reference librarian. I asked him for the employment record of my great grandfather, but he came back with two records.

The first record was my great grandfather Ignacy. The record confirmed a fact that I’d only recently discovered- he was born in Poland. This made me 1/8 Polish.

The second record was a man named Josef Kmieciak. I had never heard of Josef Kmieciak, which is my excuse for not being able to pronounce the name. But it turns out, he also worked in the mines, was Ignacy’s father-in-law, and also was born in Poland. So I was up to 1/4 Polish! Before the summer began, I didn’t even know I had a drop of Polish blood in me.

There would be more surprising leads like this, and I soon found that I could easily spend entire days mining through archival references and internet databases looking for another clue in the story. By now, I’m up to 1/2 Polish; all six immigrants on my mother’s side came from the partitioned land that was the once and future Poland. The research became overwhelming in scope, so I learned to focus. This is just the story of Ignacy.

My uncle, from the Texas branch of my family, was happy to share his stories about Ignacy. Turns out, Ignacy’s job in the mines was to light the dynamite. This was a good way to make money fast, and it was also a good way to die. Fortunately, he “chose” the former, or else this story could never have been written.

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An Army of Senior Citizens

October 28th, 2007

Back when my brother and I made our first discovery about Ignacy, I guarded my ancestral “documents” with my life. After my brother and I went our separate ways, I found myself a cheap motel in Vermont, where the caretaker shared with me her sentiment that the latest high school shoot-em-up perpetrator “should’ve gotten more of them uppity folks.” This was one of those motels with the old school “locks”- you just wedge a wooden board in front of the sliding glass door. So, I did my best to hide my prized copper mining documents in my backpack, reassured only by the fact that modern criminals haven’t figured out yet how to pull off a “genealogical document robbery and follow-up ransom note.” Needless to say, my documents and I made it home safely.

As it turns out, the world of genealogical research is full of extraordinarily helpful people. At Chicago’s branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ family history library, you can order microfilmed copies of European church records for just the cost of shipping. When I had the soberingly obvious realization that the transcripts were in Polish (a language I didn’t know), the woman in charge of the volunteers gave me a lift to a local bookstore to pick up a Polish dictionary. The volunteers at the Polish Genealogical Society of America devote an entire Saturday morning once per month to helping out researchers like me. One of the volunteers even follows up between the monthly sessions to offer additional help.

If you’re willing to pay a few bucks, you have even more options. The sprawling databases of, contain census, birth, death, immigration, and other vital records. This is the product of countless hours of transcription, most likely by army larger than this world has ever seen. An army of genealogical researchers- Mormons, for sure, but also senior citizens pursuing what may be this demographic’s most pervasive hobby. isn’t cheap, is often maligned by many genealogy purists who like to do their research the old-fashioned and inexpensive way, but it is quite a comprehensive database and worth a short term membership to quickly find and retrieve a good number of key documents.

As it turned out, an unsolicited listserv post by one of the volunteers at the Polish Genealogical Society of America turned up an address in Poland- someone with the same last name as my great grandfather Ignacy, living in the very same village that he had left some one hundred years ago. This is a village with two streets, and just a few houses. Coincidence?

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Was Chris Farley Polish?

October 28th, 2007

Chicago is often criticized as being a segregated city, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Chicago is like a microcosm of the world. In my neighborhood, for example, there’s Cuba on the southeast side of the street, Puerto Rico to the north. There’s Poland to the Northwest, and Mexico to the southwest.

Because of this world within a city, an easy way to acclimate yourself to a new culture is to visit restaurants and bars within
one of Chicago’s ethnic enclaves. Restaurants provide an opportunity to practice basic survival skills, such as saying hello and ordering food. Bars, on the other hand, can offer a much broader opportunity for conversational practice- with the types of folks who like to hang out in bars.

One of my favorite bars is right in my neighborhood. The owner, a brilliant armchair historian and hardened misanthropist, provides the conversation and free vodka, is democratic in insulting all customers, and in fact mandates that you drink the free vodka. On overhearing a casual mention of the word “mariachi”, he’ll summon a band of mariachi musicians. On a slow night, he’ll light a puddle of vodka on fire. If there’s still any chance of boredom, he’ll allow customers to play with his sword collection.

Proving that he is one of the world’s hardest workers, he is usually passed out on his own bar on account of drinking too much of his own vodka. The rest of us are left clutching the part of our abdomen where we estimate our livers to be. I’ve never had a dull night there, but admittedly the free mandatory vodka makes it very difficult to go back there with any regularity.

My girl and I discovered another bar down the street that is slightly less dangerous. Like the other bartender, this bartender interprets the American custom of waving good bye, saying thank you, and attempting to walk out the door as a cue to crack open a couple more beers. Any attempt to wave off the drinks fails, as does any attempt to tip. “Not for money, for friends,” she says. So, by mandate, this had become our new home.

On our most recent visit to the “safe” Polish bar, we sat in safety at a table a few feet from the bar, when a staggering drunk crashed over our table and broke our glasses. My command of the Polish language is still very weak, but I’m pretty sure the first thing the drunk said after a few minutes of profuse apologies might roughly be translated as “may I borrow your girlfriend?”

To keep myself from assuming that Poland is a nation of Chris Farley-esque table crashers and girlfriend snatchers, maybe it’s time to learn about Poland in other settings. I am half Polish, after all, and I wasn’t born knowing how to crash tables.

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Subterranean Jazz Club

November 12th, 2007

So I made it to Poland, and have time for a couple of nights out on the town before my Polish classes begin…

The jazz scene in Krakow, apparently, is nothing to sneeze at. I didn’t even think I had a good nose for underground jazz clubs, but I walked into one of many of Krakow’s alleyways marked with a “jazz” sign. Descending the steps into the basement, I reached a tunnel shaped like a brick-encased subway, with a bar and broad oak tables. Up front was a three piece jazz band, playing some standards. Upright bass, keyboards, and drums. A picture would be worth a thousand words, but as I didn’t have my camera, I have license to ramble.

Since I liked the looks of the place, I ordered a beer, which is not something you can just decide to do on the spot because Polish beers come in half liter portions. More of a “commitment” than a “drink.” The wooden tables gave this a real communal feel. I inevitably ended up chatting with neighbors; some teachers from Norway leading a class on “conflict”; a couple on honeymoon touring through the cold countries of Europe, making stops at key romantic locations such as Auschwitz.

The music was a perfect backdrop, though every now and then I marveled at their authoritative execution of some familiar jazz standards- Perdido, All the Things You Are, Night in Tunisia. The lead singer announced in his very best English, “We are now taking set break. We will leave stage. Another set will be following. You will know when our next set is beginning because we will be on stage.”

I couldn’t tell whether he was testing his range of English communication, or if he just had a very dry sense of humor. This matter wasn’t really cleared up after they returned to the stage and played another song. “We are now back on the stage. Our second set has now begun,” he told us.

I made it through this set. On the way out, I saw the band sitting around a table, and wanted to make sure they knew they were appreciated. My slippery command of Polish allowed me just one word. “Dobry,” I exclaimed to them. “Dobry! Perdido, night in Tunisia, Dobry!”

There was absolutely no reaction to this. Not even an appreciative nod.

On the way out, I reflected on this attempted communication, and tried to put myself in their shoes. What if I had just finished playing a set at a local coffeehouse, and someone from another land who was a foot taller than me stood over me at the stage. “GOOD!” “GOOD!” he exclaims in my face. I would either laugh, or run. These Polish musicians were far more polite.

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Banishment to the Mounds

November 12th, 2007

Some say that one of the best aids to learning a language is to live with a local family which doesn’t speak your native language. A secondary benefit is that a week-long home stay costs about the same as a single night at a typical hotel in Krakow. The downside, presumably, would be the lack of privacy.

As my goal for this first week was simply to learn Polish, I chose a homestay. Regardless, I was a bit shy about ringing the bell of a stranger who would have to put up with me for a week whether they liked me or not. Ringing the doorbell of my host family was like dipping my toes in cold water, with the exception that the person who answered the door would immediately grab me and throw my whole body into the water. Here goes…

There was little common language, but the host parents seemed very friendly in pantomime. Did I need to shower? Did I need to sleep? Did I need a map? They sat me down by the television. Coffee? No. Tea? No. Vodka? It was 1 p.m. I didn’t know how to ask whether they thought it might be too early in the day for vodka.

“Tak,” I said, remembering little other Polish than the word for “yes.” So I had a shot of honey-colored vodka and my hosts joined me. We watched independence day in Warsaw on television. I didn’t understand, but felt welcome. Another shot of vodka.

My hosts continued to watch television, and I flipped frantically through my Polish-English dictionary in a last-ditch effort to cram enough Polish in to get through this awkwardness. “Don’t you have any friends,” I think the host asked. “Why don’t you take a walk around town,” she continued, though I already had. Based on my assumption that the Polish cherished privacy just like Americans, I think they wanted me out of the house. They suggested that I go out in the snow and climb up some hill that was a few miles out of town. They could show me to the train. I took the hint and began to put on my coat. “Vodka?” the husband asked. But the wife had her coat on, and was waiting impatiently by the door. I was getting mixed signals, but I tried to please them both by gulping down a shot of vodka and heading for the door at the same time.

An hour later, I found myself on top of Kosciuszko Mound, a lump of ground honoring one of Poland’s greatest revolutionary heroes. It was snowing, and I couldn’t see much of anything of the surrounding city. Poland in November.


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Nationalist Karaoke

November 12th, 2007

Nationalist Karaoke

November 11, forgive me for not remembering which of many Polish “independences” this is, but it’s a national holiday in Poland. Good thing I knew in advance, because otherwise I would have no idea what to make of the strange occurences in the main square.

A small but lively mix of folks, all carrying umbrellas under the snow, crowded around a platform stage. Just like at Jedynka, a Polish nightclub in Chicago, next to the stage there was a huge projector screen displaying the Polish lyrics to the songs. There was no bouncing red ball to mark the phrasing, and Polish can be a bit difficult to pronounce for a beginner. Needless to say, my mumbling efforts at singing along lacked the patriotic zeal of my neighbors. You need confidence to sing national anthems. I needed food more than I needed confidence, so I made my way across the square to get some dinner.

When I came back from dinner they were still going at it, one song after another with the same pomp and grandeur of our single national anthem.

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Happy Pig Tastes Better

November 12th, 2007

During my break from the Nationalist Karaoke, I found just the restaurant I must have been looking for. Chlopski Jadlo. Not sure what this meant, other than that it sounded pretty authentically Polish, whatever that meant.

Well, it at least looked like it would be authentic. Had the makes of an old country inn; raw wood walls, backlit paper windows, and a menu that looked like a book-sized replica of a country house. Trying to be authentic, I ordered some borscht, and what is supposed to be a peasant’s classic, consisting of pork fried in three different ways. Before my entree arrived, I was given bread and two kinds of cream; one which looked like crisco with bits of bacon, and the other which looked like a cream cheese with unidentifiable green bits. The crisco was quite good; I remember my Polish teacher in Chicago telling me about something called “smalec”, which is supposedly made of pig fat and bits of apple and onion. She went on to say that Polish people ate this and were still not fat like Americans. She also said this would taste better than it sounded, because in Poland, pigs were allowed to roam free and were not caged in like in America. “Happy pig tastes better,” she concluded.

I think she was right.

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Family of Teachers

November 15th, 2007

I’m starting to like this business of living with a local family… It seems they have a sincere interest in my education. Today, in the morning, the wife took out utensils and kitchenware, and taught me the names of each item. In the afternoon, the husband pulled out the same items to review, and coached me through one of the more difficult words, the name for the Polish “bagel” (Obwadzianek). “Ohb-vah-jah-nek” he said.

“Od-bah-jah-nik” I repeated.

“Ohb-vah-jah-nek,” he repeated, patiently.

“Ohd-vuh-jah-nek” I repeated.

“Ohb-vah-jah-nek,” he said again, this time raising his voice a little.

“Ohd-vah-jah-nek” I repeated.


Several tries later, I was done. I’m not sure whether I actually got it, or if he just wanted to move on with his life.

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