In my last post, I provided the set up for Mirka’s story. You can read that here. As promised, these are Mirka’s words. Mirka, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing this… Julie
Writing and putting my thoughts on paper is one of my weakest points, the sad part is, as much as I would love to start a blog (for my friends and family to follow), I know it won’t be good reading. Oh well. Secondly, I’m afraid my story won’t be as interesting as you think, I’m just one of thousands that left communism, made a good life for themselves in the West, but never really became the Westerners they wanted to be.
I was born in 1960 in Zielona Gora, Poland. Both of my parents are college educated, dad – PHD in economics, Mom – teacher. Both were hard working, honest, humble and never believed money was their God. It wasn’t important what car you drove or how big your apartment was, they asked what you read recently, or how many languages you spoke. My father loved travel, far away places. Loved travel books, maps and anything that had to do with world geography and history. My uncle, construction worker, earned more than both of them combined and that drove me crazy. By the time I was in High School, I realized this is horrible. No, not the lack of possessions, I could live with B&W TV, it was the feeling of being a part of a gray mass, sub-citizens of the world, the rest of the world looking at us with a sad look thinking “oh, those poor people”.
When I was in college, ’79 or ’80, I was standing in line to buy some coffee. It was a very rare item to hit store shelves, and lines were long, up to 6-8 hours. Few spots in front of me was my linear algebra professor, one of the smartest men in western Poland, also waiting to buy some coffee (there was nothing else in the store that day). Shouldn’t he be working on something very important? In his lab, trying to prove Fermat’s Theorem?? My mom later said, that in the West scientist are well paid, where they don’t need to worry about those measly daily problems.
By the time I was 20, I made up my mind and decided to get out there. For few years I was taking private English lessons (had Russian and German in school), and knew, that one day I will end up in US. In July 1981 I obtained a passport and exit visa for a day trip to Copenhagen, and with those I went to Bratislava and crossed the border to Austria. Had to give the border guard 50 USD (a third of my fortune) to let me through, and found myself in the mighty West. I was free, at last.
I went straight to refugee camp and applied for an American visa. It took over a year, interviews, health checks etc, but I passed and in November 1982 came to US. While living in Austria, I met a Polish family that immigrated to Texas, and thanks to them, that’s where I ended up as well.
As it turned out, my English was good enough to get a job as a waitress, and soon I had enough money to get my own apartment and even enroll in college. I wanted to be an American so badly, I wanted to get rid of my accent, dress like they all do, eat what they eat and live like they live. I knew few Polish people living around DFW metro, but really didn’t want to keep in touch too much. Never went to mass in Polish (I dropped out of the Catholic Church long time ago), never cooked Polish food, hardly ever even spoke Polish. I married an American and spoke English at home. Changed my first name from Miroslawa to Mirka, just to make it easier and quicker to spell. I hated it when asked where I’m from. I hated to be different.
I worked for few airlines: Braniff, Pan Am and TWA (what a list, huh?). That allowed us to travel for free anywhere in the world. I went to London Christmas shopping, to Vienna for a weekend, Hong Kong just because. I also took my two children to Poland so they could spend summers with my parents and aunts and uncles in the country. They loved every minute of it. Just like I loved my childhood there.
My Mom passed away in 1995, she was 59 and too young to go. Going home didn’t seem like going “home” anymore. My brother was busy with his start up company, my dad still working. After the demise of TWA, I went to work for an investment company, so airline tickets suddenly became sooo expensive, good excuse if you really didn’t feel like going there. You could say I was slowly starting to feel like an American!
I imagine Poles in Chicago, Detroit or New York are treated differently. They come, overstay their visas, work under the table, don’t pay taxes. Lot of wheeling and dealing going on. Texas doesn’t have a big Polish population and when I mentioned I was from Poland, it sounded more exotic. Suddenly, and I think it was about my late thirties or early forties, I enjoyed being different. I realized that just because you were born here, it doesn’t make you better. I started being proud that my children had table manners, they experienced the Berlin Wall and Auschwitz. I started to see a lot of negatives of living here, and I won’t go into those in detail, I still love this country. I don’t like the fact that you have to call a neighbor before you go over, good schools are only available to the well off, sweat pants and torn t-shirts are proper attire for boarding a plane or going out to eat.
Or, take the food culture, and I am only speaking about your average American, not the privileged ones that can afford $400 sushi plate in NY. Most will tell you that Applebee’s is their favorite restaurant, they never had truly good crusty bread or French pastry. I know it’s not their fault, those things are expensive here, but why? Why is good bread so cheap in Poland?
Anyway, I started to feel European again, wanting to experience the food, walks in the park, museums, music, sports besides baseball and football. I even went to Poland this last February to watch Winter Olympics with my dad. They showed much more than just Americans competing.
My Dad is 80 now and his health is worse. We would like to move there to spend some time with him, and also, get to experience the Europe that I miss so much now. So here we are, trying to sell the house, pack, store, give away our “stuff”. It is overwhelming, we are scared, but also excited. It will be tough at first, but I hope we can make it our home, as long as we understand that being different is a good thing. They do things differently there and we are willing to adapt.
Mirka’s letter left me with a few unanswered questions. Namely how she got out of Poland and if her parents realized her plans. From everything I have learned since moving here, her escape could not have been that simple. Below is her email which answered my questions.
I did omit few things, really didn’t want the letter to become a 20-page novel, so I thought I would shorten it a bit. But you are right, some things are important.
I did apply for a passport to visit US, and was denied. It was probably a good thing. I would have stayed beyond my tourist visa, and would have taken me years to become legal resident. I also applied once to visit Austria and was denied as well. So I bought a 1 day trip from a travel agency, and with their paperwork, it worked! I got my passport. But you have to remember, in order to leave Poland you also have to have a exit visa. Even though a passport is good for all countries, exit visa is only good for a specific one (or few). I remember making up a story about friend’s wedding I wanted to attend and didn’t have time to apply for a change of destination in my exit visa. I think I was lucky, I could have been sent back home in a heartbeat.
To this day I don’t know why they finally gave me that passport. I was in the middle of college, and did have ALL my family in Poland, someone probably thought, she’s too young and fragile to even try to pull a stunt like that.
I did tell my parents about my plans. My dad didn’t think it would work. He thought I will be back home in few weeks. My mom cried, but supported me and wished me luck. Few months after I left Polish government declared martial law (Dec 1981), and both of them were happy I was out. But it was hard, or so hard. I never left home for more than 2 weeks, and never ever was left to take care of myself. I wrote to my parent almost every other day. Back then phone calls were very expensive and they didn’t have a phone. I called a neighbor every few months, that’s all.
Return to Poland was out of the question. Nobody really knows what the punishment was for not returning on time (I’m sure it depends on who you were and what you were up to) and forget about getting an exit visa ever again, but things started to get better after the fall of communism and we were all given a freedom to come home (a pardon of some sort) in late 80’s. Even with my American passport I wouldn’t have returned before then. Those Polish authorities were nasty, legends were made there.
Fist time I went was in 1988, 7 years after I left. It doesn’t seem to be that long, but it was for me. There were cousins born while I was away, the little ones have grown up. My little brother was married and working. The best part was being home. It smelled the same, it felt the same, and people in my life didn’t change.
In States I was often asked where my accent was from, and same happened in Poland (my Polish was loosing it’s harshness), supposedly I had an accent! But instead of feeling like an outsider in both contries, I felt fortunate that I could experience both worlds and call them home.
An update for those who want to follow Mirka’s story as she returns to live in Poland. Here blog is up and active! To read it, click here.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe