Day 41: Call Me Halinka

“That’s not the way we do things in Poland.” Agnes said.

Wait. Did I just say something insulting? What did I say?

“No. You can not get a hotel room. It’s just not done.”

I asked her she was suggesting.

She said that I must come and stay with her and her family in a small town about two hours from where I was staying. They had room for me.

Wait. Really? Are you sure?

“Yes. We will pick you up at the train station. Let’s pick a time for you to come here tomorrow.”

I asked her if she had to check with her mother first.

She said that her mother would be insulted if I wasn’t invited to stay.

I asked her if she had to check with her husband first.

She tired of my questions and suggested we pick a train for me to take in the morning.

Wow. I was going to stay with Agnes's Polish family in a small town two hours from Warsaw.

I could take a train at 7:40 AM or one at 9:30.

She said that I should take the earlier one so that I had more time to see some things in the countryside.

Agnes and I teach at the same school in upstate, New York. I knew she was from Poland, but also knew that she hadn’t been back for years. I never thought to contact her and let her know I was in the country.

She reached out to me.

I was so excited about going to visit her family that I couldn’t sleep.

Three generations of her family drove an hour to pick me up from the train station at Pulawy Miasto: Grandpa (Janusz), Grandma (Maria), Agnieszka (My friend and coworker), Ed (her husband), and her two boys Redi (older boy) and Roen (younger boy).

They had a full day road trip mapped out so I could visit some small Polish towns.


The first stop was the town of Kazimierz Dolny. We walked through the marketplace and then climbed to the castle on top of a hill. We posted outside the walls for photos, then headed to the tower which was farther up the hill.

I decided not to climb this tower because I tweaked my knee yesterday. One moment my knee was fine, and the next moment it was angry.

I don’t know what made it start hurting or how to make it better. My moody knee has decided that it no longer wants to climb stairs.

There are a lot of stairs in Poland.

Come on, body. You can handle the travel road for one more week.

I slowly, slowly walked down the hill and stepped into the old church. It was as ornate as the churches in Krakow. I sat on a pew and took in the beauty. Paintings. Gold leaf. Colorful ceiling. Hand carved pews. Silver hammered art.

I lit a candle for world peace and then walked down the hill to find my friends.

I asked Agnes if this area was attacked during the wars and rebuilt.

She said it wasn’t.

That’s why the church looks like the churches in Krakow, it made it through the wars without being destroyed.

After lunch at a restaurant next to the Vistula River (Yes, the same river flows through Krakow and through Warsaw.), we piled back into the van.

Mom--Agnes and Dad--Ed up front and the boys in the backity-back-back.

The driver’s side back door doesn’t open. So I got into the back seat first, then slid across to the passenger side, then Grandma sat in the middle and Grandpa sat next to the door that needed a good strong pull to close it all the way.

We drove to Nateczow for an electric car tour of the grounds that have been used for healing practices for over 400 years. Currently it is a place for older people to come and revitalize.

Kings came here to sip the healing waters and so did other nobles from the past. A general who drank the healing waters before a major battle against the Austrian army won the battle.

In terms of advertising slogans, that is a powerful message: “Drink our water, win the war.” (Emphasis mine.)

The guide said that doctors have recorded many healings for people who drank the water. The water is high in potassium and is said to help with heart health.

She added that it is not good for kidney health.

It seems like it is tough to decide whether to help your heart or hurt your kidneys.

This isn’t my concern. I’m not invited to stay.

Though our guide called the place a sanitorium, it was essentially a spa. If you go to your doctor and he thought that you needed time to heal from something or a way to deal with your anxiety, you might get a free ticket to this place.

My mind worked overtime, trying to figure out how I could get an invitation to lounge around the healing pools. My mind didn’t care that I wasn’t Polish and that I wasn’t old enough and that it wouldn’t happen.

My mind is good at lusting after things that will never happen.

Each day there are “Must Complete” parts of your healing that included drink the healing waters, bathe in the healing waters, go for walks, rest in the afternoon (no dinner if you don’t rest) and dance into the evening.

There are several dance halls for seniors to let loose.

They are also encouraged to have sex, but I couldn’t figure out what happens if you are not there with your partner. One answer was that men in Poland can stray. Another answer was that it’s part of the healing practice to find a new partner to help you heal.

I probably misunderstood: did they say that having sex with strangers can help you heal?

Grandfather made fun of me for taking so many notes about what we were learning and the things that happened. He asked if I was FBI or CIA.

I couldn’t think of a good pantomime response, so just laughed.

Our guide, Lucy—who was about to start medical school, told us the story about the statue of a sitting man that was next to the pond. There is a story that if you rub his knee, you will win money in the lottery.

Lottery tickets are sold on the grounds.

Our guide said that there was a woman who took her tour and rubbed the statue’s knee. She returned a few weeks later and reported that she won the lottery.

She won 10 zloty (Just over 2 dollars) and returned to up her luck with more knee rubbing.

We all rubbed his knee, and then Grandmother went to buy a lottery ticket, just in case rubbing the knee paid off.

She said that the line to buy tickets was very long.

Note to self: Business idea. Rub the guy’s knee and…. Think of something good, or stick with selling lottery tickets.

When Agnes heard that I loved old churches, she insisted that we drive a longer route home so I could see some old, country churches.

We stopped at an old church in the town of Chodel, where Grandfather and Grandmother grew up on opposite sides of the river. (They didn’t notice each other until their teenage years.)

The church was a tall building with a tower that was built in 1541. The grandmother and I walked up to the building.

An older priest sat outside on a bench.

She called to him and asked if we could enter. He nodded.

Though the sanctuary was locked, we were able to look in through the lobby’s gate.

Art hung on every surface. There were gold fixtures, elaborate pews and statues. It was too dark inside for me to take photos.

I breathed in the beauty. I have no interest in the masses that take place inside of these churches and hope it isn’t sacrilegious to love churches for their artistic qualities. I don’t slight their importance as a center of the spiritual community.

I just want to look around.

Before we returned to the car, I said thank you to the priest, and held both of my hands up to my heart to show that I loved it.

He nodded slowly and held up one hand to me. I wasn’t sure if it was a lazy wave or a blessing, but I accepted it as a gift.

I asked Agnes if this church was destroyed in the war.

She said it wasn’t destroyed, but it was bombed in WW I. She pointed out four metal pegs that stick out from the walls.

World War I.

(If you enlarge the photo, you can see the bars, which are commemorative markers of the bombing, on the level of the clock.)

We drove past by the hill where potassium waste was left during the mining days—the same hill that Agnes sledded down as a child. They showed me the house where Grandfather grew up.

Agnes recalled that as a child she would fetch water using a handpump for her grandmother at this house. She said that her grandmother cooked over a woodstove, which was also used to heat the house. They used an outhouse out back.

Today her father still owns the house and some family members stay there as a vacation while visiting the area. There is running water now in the corner of the garage and there is still an outhouse. They close the house up in the winter so the lack of heat is no longer a problem.

Agnes said, “You want to see Poland? This is Poland.”

This is exactly what I wanted to see.

She was a good sport about translating information for the Grandfather and Grandmother to understand and for answering our questions about how to say certain things.

We would ask her, “How do you say exact?” “How do you say precise?” “How do you say perfect?”

She said they were the same word in Polish and we accepted her answer.

Her older son has been able to understand more of his mother’s first language and can even understand some of his grandfather’s jokes.

Agnes dubbed me Halinka--Holly in Polish, and suggested I buy a souvenir magnet with my new name on it.

I did.

As we drove along the countryside, I noticed that it looked a lot like the Hudson Valley, where we live. There were apple orchards, corn fields and fields of sunflowers. Although it was a bit dry, the land remained green and lush.

Just like home.

We looked up the latitude of Annopole, the town where the grandparents live now and where we would stay tonight.


Annopole: 50

Kingston, New York: 41 (This is where Agnes's family and I live.)

Agnes continued checking other areas.

Buffalo, New York: 42.

Montreal: 45.

So although this may look like home, it is much farther north than where I live.

I asked her if she remembered anything from the days of communist rule while growing up.

She remembers that the grocery stores were empty and standing on line for sugar.

At the time you got one allotment, or about one and a half pounds of sugar for every person in the family. So they all took turns standing in the long lines.

She added, “And if word got out that there was toilet paper, the line would grow fast. Even though you couldn’t get very much, everyone wanted it.”

She doesn’t remember having any police presence in her small town but does remember having a happy childhood. She was 9-years-old when Communist rule ended in Poland.

She and Grandpa and Grandma told the story of the time she and an older brother were home before her parents got home from work. The children had been instructed to never open the door for anyone.

Her grandmother came to visit.

Agnes called out to her grandmother and said, “I know it’s you, but I can’t let you in.”

Her grandmother had to sit on a bench and wait for her mother to get home and let her in.

Once her mother returned from shopping and Agnes wouldn’t let her mother in, stating that she was told never to open the door for anyone.

Her parents still giggle at the memory of their daughter following all of the rules.

As a preschool student, she was able to walk to school alone while her mother watched her from the window. In those days neighbors watched out for the children; there was nothing to worry about.

The church at Annapole was an old concrete building. Agnes, Grandmother and I got out to have a look.

Grandmother asked Agnes to translate that the older, wooden church was much more beautiful, but that it was closed most of the year.

She brought me to the door of the old church and was surprised that it was open.

Through a stoke of luck, the priest was inside with someone discussing construction projects.

Grandmother insisted I look around and take some photos.

The ceiling was painted a vibrant mural. Click. Art hung on every wall. Click.

Agnes said that there is one valuable painting that is only unveiled once a year.

I couldn’t remember when she said that painting was uncovered, was it Easter? I was too busy trying to imagine something more valuable that what already hung on the walls.

As we walked back to the car, Agnes said that this is how it is in small towns. All of the people’s money goes to the church.

I expected the smaller churches to be less ornate, but now I wondered if they were even more ornate.

We made it home to her parents apartment that was many floors up without a lift.

Come on, knee. Just a few more stairs. You got this.

It was a four bedroom condo with a narrow kitchen and long living room with a balcony that looked out over the courtyard and playground. Agnes gave me a tour and showed me that the light switches to the bathrooms were outside the rooms on the wall and that the toilet is in a different room than the shower, as is the European way.

They had a private room for me with a table to write on. Her parents were so happy that I had come for a visit. They reminded me a lot of my parents in their generosity towards strangers visiting.

I tried to help get dinner ready, but Agnes kicked me out and had me sit in the living room. The kitchen was too small for a third person.

We sat around the table in the living room discussing pickles. Agnes's sons are connoisseurs: the smaller ones are crunchier, the larger ones have more flavorings and they are addictive.

I tried every kind of pickle and the boys were right.


Through some work of magic, dinner was on the table in minutes.

How do people do that?

We feasted on homemade tomato soup with rice, meatballs, potatoes, cucumber salad and four different kinds of homemade pickles: large, small and two different kinds of mushrooms that Grandparents harvested from the woods nearby and then pickled.

Everything was gluten-free.

Ed had warned me to eat slowly, for as soon as my plate was empty, Grandmother would insist I ate more.

Got it.

But I couldn’t eat slowly. I had seconds of the soup and was too embarrassed to ask for thirds.

I promised myself I would ask for soup for breakfast.

It was seriously that good.

This typical dinner served with love was a treat for me after mostly eating boring restaurant food for the past five weeks.

I told Roen that I was going to stay here forever because I loved his grandmother’s cooking and his grandfather’s jokes.

He shook his head. “Bad idea, because pretty soon we will leave and you will lose your translator.”

Good point.

Written by: Halinka Huppert

The marketplace at Kazimierz Dolny, Poland.

The boys would like to win the lottery.

Every condo building in Annopol has a structure to hang rugs and beat them -- to clean them. A neighbor takes a break while cleaning her rug. Annopol, Poland.

Roen turns the crank on equipment at the playground to hear a song in English. Grandpa makes a cameo on the right side of the video, dancing along.





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