June 15, 2017

Chaos and cabbages: 5 days until Poland

For 18 months, I’ve dreamed of visiting Poland to research my family’s history and to share it with my daughter. Last fall, I booked the flights. I persuaded my mother to join us. Three generations of women are going to explore our ancestral homeland.

When it was far away, the Poland project looked like a grand adventure, cinematic in scope, with a novel and film as inevitable outcomes.

A few weeks ago, as the date approached, it began to feel like something else.

I was walking in downtown Minneapolis, hurrying to a meeting I was late for, when it dawned on me: I didn’t have an international driver’s permit. These things have a way of popping into my head when I can’t do a thing about them. My trip was a month away. The website said to allow 4-6 weeks processing time for the permit. I felt like I was falling. That night, I learned that the AAA office could issue a permit on the spot. It was the feeling of falling quickly, then being swept up to safety just before I hit the ground.

It’s a feeling I know all too well.

I felt it again last week, when I was looking at my flight itinerary and realized that there was a full day between my connecting flights, a 28-hour Toronto layover that threw our whole schedule into disarray. The free fall lasted 40 minutes on hold with Air Canada, and the upsweep arrived when a friendly ticketing agent said it was no problem at all to adjust the dates.

I am not an organized person. In my professional life, I rely on conscientious teammates and forgiving bosses. Sam plans our family vacations down to Excel spreadsheets with packing lists. My job is to show up, be fun, and write about the adventure.

The Poland Project wasn’t supposed to be like this. My sweeping vista of cultural and historical discovery had morphed into a to-do list, a set of tasks, a million details. It coincided with a major work project that involved 4 trips in 6 weeks, the end of the kids’ school year, soccer season, and too many volunteer commitments.

Friends asked how excited I was for Poland, and I replied with an exasperated sigh and a list of all the things undone. I didn’t have plans with my cousins or a rental car or any clue how to charge my iPhone on European voltage. The Poland project felt like a term paper I had left until the last minute, and I was living the middle-aged version of a caffeine-fueled all-nighter in the campus computer lab.

Last week, I flew to Seattle for work, on a plane without WiFi. Those lost hours of productivity filled me with panic: The unread emails! The texts languishing in the ether! The lost productivity!

On that flight, I did something so old-fashioned that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it already: I read a travel guide about Poland. I savored the pictures and reminded myself that Poland wasn’t just another chore left undone: it was also cobbled streets, old churches, busy marketplaces, cheerfully painted cottages dotting verdant hillsides.

This was the page that changed everything.

The simple, hearty foods of Poland. The knots of pretzeled bread and the varied salty meats. I read the Polish names in my head, and they harkened back to my childhood and my mother boiling cabbage on the stove, pounding chicken cutlets at the kitchen counter. I thought of my daughter and how much she loves the kabanosy sausages from the Eastern European deli in Minneapolis.

Food brings us home.

Pictures of food in a book reminded me that I’m going home, not to Fargo, but to a home that’s generations deeper, at once familiar and full of surprises.

The details will be sorted out. They always are. Yesterday, I did the one thing that has always been so helpful and so hard for a disorganized overachiever like me: I asked for help.

Sam and I are making a spreadsheet.

And I will show up. I will be in the moment. I will write about it.

No comments: