As I was stepping off the bus, eager to explore the small Polish town of Płock, I ignorantly assumed someone would understand my English. It is a small shame that I carry with me, the fact that I do not speak or understand the root language of my ancestors. How hard could it be to understand “town”, or “city center”, or even the name Płock itself? It took me mere minutes and decreasing self-confidence to realize not that long. Completely lost and alone at a small bus station with no sign of city life anywhere, I began walking.
A kind gentleman ran after me and pointed me in the direction of a city bus. He did not understand what I wanted exactly, but he obviously knew I should take a bus to any direction worthwhile. So I hopped on and hoped I would notice the town or the river that I knew ran next to the town. After ten minutes and ending up at the end of the bus line right next to the local hospital, I got off pretending I knew exactly where I was going. I had no idea, so I waited for the next bus back and went in the exact direction I came from, defeated.
On a whim, I exited at a larger looking intersection and meandered my way cautiously down the street, remembering every step I took, lest I needed to retrace them. I stumbled upon more buildings and it seemed, almost suddenly, that life started springing up around me. Pharmacies, small groceries, and restaurants started dotting the streets until I noticed what looked like a city map. Success! I had finally found the quaint town square!
As the sun was shining, the fountains were running, and the colored buildings seemed to smile down upon me in their salmon pink and daisy yellow colors. I took myself to the tourist information center to try and find more detailed information from the locals. You see, I had already done some research on this city. Płock, though small and maybe not worthwhile for most tourists, runs in my veins as my paternal great grandparent lived there before he ventured courageously on a ship to America. I wanted so desperately to feel a connection to people I had only known through their old wedding photographs displayed in our living room, their serious expressions not giving way to the generous people my father and relatives spoke of so fondly.
Growing up eating pierogis, blessing Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, and passing around a tasteless wafer, or Oplatki, every Christmas Eve while wishing family members health and happiness for the upcoming year all seemed normal as a child raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania. However, after traveling and meeting new people, even from other parts of Pennsylvania, I realized they did not have Eastern European populations surrounding them growing up and therefore did not have a deep knowledge of their culture. This was saddening for them, because pierogis are delicious! Appreciating that I was able to grow up in a society where my ancestors’ culture was passed down to me, I knew that traveling to one of my ancestral homelands would be sacred and special in its own rite. Though fully immersed into American culture, there must have been a reason these traditions were deemed important enough to teach the children and grandchildren.
Map in hand, I headed towards one of the local churches, a beautiful, yet sparsely decorated brick building surrounded in the shade of trees that protected its sanctity, the figure of Pope John Paul II dutifully looking over the landscape. Wandering along the brick paths and past the nicely tended to flowers I ventured near the edge of the hill. I stopped in my tracks as the Vistula River stared back at me, mighty in its current. It was not that the river or even the scenery was particularly shocking in and of itself. What caught me off guard was how much it reminded me of home, images I rarely thought of since moving abroad. The river, the bank, the greenery and the trees reminded me almost exactly of the Susquehanna River which cuts through the Wyoming Valley, the place that cradled me for 21 years of my life.
I suddenly understood deep down why my family decided to call Northeast Pennsylvania home, it must have reminded them so much of what they left behind, a life to which they knew they would never return. Though I am sure they carried a small sadness in their heart, they always told others if life was so good back home, then why were they in America? Though they made a life for themselves and had descendants who carried on and succeeded in their pursuits, I am certain they could always remember their roots when they felt homesick just by looking at everything that was around them.
Sitting on a nearby bench, the irony of my situation that day hit me like a ton of bricks. I am positive my great grandparents felt just as lost when they landed in America as I did at the bus station mere hours before. While I was only visiting for a day trip, they were attempting to make an entirely new life for themselves. Confused, possibly shy, maybe embarrassed, and definitely unable to speak any English, they would eventually end up in the place they were looking for or maybe was looking for them. They were successfully able to plant new roots that grew and eventually took themselves back in memories and traditions to the starting point where it all began.
As I look back on this episode from two years ago, I cannot help but think about my life journey, from the small valley with a heart that I now believe was handpicked by my ancestors, to currently working with urban refugees in Amman, Jordan. I begin to see small yet consistent patterns. These people I work with from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia, carry with them as well stories, memories, photographs, and traditions which they cling to in the hope that when they feel alone and forsaken they can find in them some comfort and a sense of normalcy. We all just want to feel that we belong; that we have a home that we can go to when things get difficult and we need relief. No matter what flow of people goes where, people are the same deep down inside.
No matter whether our life journey has its tranquil or tumultuous times along the way just like the rivers’ waters do, it is the source that is the most important. I journeyed half way across the world to find my source and literally found my personal source of NEPA in a small city in Poland.
Elena Habersky spent the first five years of her life in the Polish enclave of Swoyersville but grew up in the Back Mountain. A 2009 graduate of Dallas High School, she went on to earn a degree in International Studies from The University of Scranton in 2013. For the past three years she has been living in Amman, Jordan teaching and working with urban refugees since receiving a Fulbright scholarship. She has been published in America Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, Muftah Magazine, and Family Flavours Magazine writing about urban refugees and culture in Amman.