My daughter and I travelled to Poland in June 2005 for a family reunion for the family name Ejsmont. Stephanie Ejsmont was my grandmother. Her father, Waclaw, emmigrated from Poland to the US via Ellis Island in 1905.
In 2004 I got an email from a woman named Christina. Out of the blue, she found a posting and said that her grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers! I was shocked! We kept in touch every few weeks via email and post. In early 2005 I heard about an Ejsmont family reunion in Bailystok Poland. Would I want to come? SURE! Scared? Yes! Very! I don't speak Polish. I don't understand Polish, but I like Polish food....so I was going hell or high water!
My daughter and I flew from Baltimore to Iceland to Frankfurt. We were met by Christina and her husband Wojtek at the airport. We recognized each other through pictures we sent. They live in a town named Darmstadt. What a beautiful town! Nice shops, pretty and thin people...I was the fattest chick around! We ate and drank wine....drank wine and ate some more.
The next day we flew from Frankfurt to Warsaw Poland, met a friend at the airport, then drove north for 1,000 miles it seemed (200 maybe?) to Olsztyn. The Poland roads are downright scary to the amateur! The roads are narrow, unmarked and horrifyingly windy. There are no speed limits (and if there were, I didn't know it). We wizzed through small villages that were gone when I blinked. My butt was just starting to hurt from being over the tire well while we bounced along at 70 down dirt country roads.
We passed many high rise apartments throughout the countryside. Some only 5 stories high, but clumped together somewhat away from the quaint village. These apartments were from the Soviet era. Housing offered to the citizens of Poland during communism. They stand today, some are made to look quite nice, others look very sad and delapidated.
We stopped for lunch at a wonderfully decorated, bright yellow restaurant. In it's day, this was a charming home or inn. We ordered potatoes and pierogies with lots of sour cream. These babies were real pierogies, not frozen Mrs. Pauls! I was in heaven. I drank a bottled Lipton iced tea. Now for bathroom business: I had to go. 15 zlotys to use a toilet. A sweet 800 year old woman staffed a tiny spot near the toilet with a metal can collecting 15 zlotys. I felt generous...I gave 25 zlotys. That equals a whole 8 cents in US money.
We arrived at Christina's sister Eva's home. Eva was a teacher during communist times (until 1991) and still lives on the top floor of the school. She's a collector of fine antiques and is an art lover. The village is a very old and very poor looking place by American standards. No landscaping, no pretty cars, no luxuries. When we entered the school, traveling up 4 flights of stairs, my daughter and I looked at each other in a scared way. It was dark and musty...where were we going? We reached the end of the hall and Eva's door opened....bright lights, music, antiques and beautiful art adorned the walls. This was heaven for me. Eva and I have similar tastes in eclectic things. Eva also is a great cook! She prepared dinner, with many bottles of wine, and it was fabulous! At risk of offending her, I even ate a tomato salad 'all gone'. It was frightening, as I truly hate tomatoes, but I didn't want to offend my new found family.
The next day we visited a castle in the town where Teutonic Knights once ruled in the 1300's.
We visited a wonderfully old church, Swieta Lipka, a 17th and 18th century Baroque monastery and church. We had to pay 15 Zoltys to park. The church is an amazing Catholic church with elaborate ceiling paintings and ornamental decorations everywhere! They still perform church services there daily and have confessionals unlike anything I've ever seen. Here in the US confessionals are closets where no one knows who is in there and you barely see the priest. At this church, the confessionals are along the perimeter of the wall, you enter and sit, no privacy door, no nothing. There is a small divider between you and the priest, but everyone can see you!
We went to the shopping area, which was puny compared to what we are spoiled with. The shops are warm and welcoming, and very nice.
We had dinner, and slept. The next day we woke early, to truck our butts (not in a truck but a Ford model car) all the way south east to Bialystok on the charming dirt roads, doing 70 around windy corners, through quaint villages, with my butt hurting from the bumps.
We drove through dozens of small villages. Some with 20 houses (like below) some with less. Most of the homes had small wooden fences (upright sticks in the ground) around the home with chickens or a goat. Some had a cow or two. What an amazing place! In central to western Poland there were no wooden houses. Just homes made of cinderblock and concrete. After the wars, homes were burned and destroyed, so they were rebuilt stronger and more hardy. In the east however, there were 'wood houses'. The war didn't affect much of eastern Poland, so wood was available for homes.
Roadside shrines were located at either the entrance or the exit of most of the villages we went through. Some were very elaborate, others were small. I was in Poland right after Pople John Paul died. Every shrine we saw had huge pictures of him and tons of fresh flowers adorning it. It was an amazing site to see.
We made it to just outside of Bialystok for the reunion. The accommodations were at resort, which was probably only for the wealthy government people before for the fall of communism (1991). Now, the lodge is aged and in need of cosmetic repair. The small cottage where we stayed was 21 dollars a night, sleeps 5 with a toilet, sink and shower. My daughter and I had a challenge of who could kill the most mosquitos.
The reception and dinner started immediately upon arrival, no time to change. I was a novelty to my 'cousins' as my great grandfather was the only Ejsmont in the family to go to America. I met a charming cousin named Lech who made sure I could say his name with a throaty K sound. He hugged me saying "my American cousin" over and over again.
There were about 100 or so Ejsmonts gathered for this reunion. Old and young. The dinner was an experience for my daughter and I. Each place setting had 1 bottle of Vodka, 1 bottle of Pepsi and 1 bottle of orange juice. Wow...talk about a cocktail!
Kapusta was served as salad (a tangy red Polish cabbage). Not bad, not my favorite, but not bad. And sadly, I don't remember what else we ate...must have been that vodka (just kidding).
I was a guest of honored in a way at the reunion. Christina stood up before the whole group and told them how she found me and who I was. I stood up and said hello to everyone. I cried like a sissy as family I never knew, or probably will never see again, came over and hugged me and welcomed me in an amazing way.
After dinner...the DJ fired up American 80's retro tunes and the dancing began! If I heard 1 more David Bowie, Blondie or Michael Jackson song again, I'd have screamed. I 'retired' around 11pm after a long day in a car, going 70, on windy country dirt roads, on the tire well! The party continued until 7am.
We had breakfast at 10am at a barn-like building. There was a huge scewered pig roasting....head and all. I wanted a pop tart about now. There was juice, coffee and lots of rolls...I was happy. No pig for me!
This was our fairwell day, and we were heading back to Eva's in a village in Olsztyn called Ketrzyn. Christina's father who is my grand uncle (cousin of my grandmother) and his wife were at the reunion. They are amazing people and so genuine!
We headed back about 10am to Eva's house. On the way, we stopped at a wonderful tourist town, Mikolajki (Meek-ohw-wajjj-khee), sounds Hawaiian. The town is very old, at least from the 1500's. It's a town that relies on the income of wealth Germans and westerners to vacation. It's on a huge lake with fishing, sailing, theatre, shopping, dining, etc. Perfect place to vacation! I purchased an amber pendant from a jeweler and paid a fraction of what I would have paid here in the US.
We then headed out again and came across a restaurant in an old barn on the lake. We had dinner there. The place was filled with fine antiques in a comfortable setting, not ostentatious at all. Each seating group was put together as if it was your personal dining room. It was absolutely wonderful. We had beer, wine, soup and entree (I don't recall the dish) and the bill came to 35 American dollars! I bought dinner.
There was a very friendly Bernese Mountain Dog wandering the restaurant, outside and inside, throughout the place while we were there.
The next morning we left early and headed back to the Warsaw airport for Frankfurt. A friend of Eva's drove us, so now there were 5 in her tiny Ford car. I of course got the tire well again! My butt once again is hurting on the windy, country dirt roads at 70 miles an hour!
About half way to the airport (a 3 hour trip) I had to use the bathroom. I dropped subtle hints, but to no avail. Finally, right when my bladder was going to rupture, I screamed "There's a McDonalds, stop at McDonalds!". We pull in to the parking lot, I run in and find a group of 20 little 4 year olds playing in the sink in the only bathroom. Finally, they emerged and I was safe!
We flew from Warsaw to Frankfurt aboard Wizz Air!, yes, true. It was Wizz Air!. A plane licensed out of Hungary. The flight attendants were beautiful and perfect. I was expecing to see ZsaZsa Gabor (she was Hungarian). It was a purple plane with purple leather seats. The flight was great and eventless!
When we got back to Christina's we visited a shopping district. The stores were similar to ours, as expensive, with similar styles, maybe more trendy.
The next day, day 7, we went on a castle excursion. The first castle, visible from the Autobahn was Frankensteins Castle. We were the only visitors in the parking lot. We walked through the woods on a path (hearing a large cat's roar, later to learn yes, there are cougars/mountain lions in the region) to the castle entrance.
The castle is in need of much repair. It was very delapidated and in a sad state. The castle dates from the 17th century and was where Dr. Frankenstein practiced medicine. Below is not a picture that I took, but it shows the main tower of the Castle. We weren't able to climb this tower, but we did climb a shorter tower and walked the grounds.
We then visited a very old castle that was in the process of being rehabilitated. All of the floors were gone, so you could look up from the first floor and see windows where floors used to be. We were able to climb scaffolding to the walkway, and go up into the tower.
The next castle we visited was known as the Heidelberg Castle. I believe it to be from the 1200's. It overlooks the City of Heidelberg. This was a big tourist attraction and was paid admittance ($10 maybe?). This castle was HUGE and had seen better days too. Most of the floors were missing as was the roof. One of the guides, giving a paid tour, told visitors that the Americans had bombed the castle even though they weren't supposed to during WWII. What the guide didn't say was that the Germans were using this castle as a hide out. The Americans were shooting at the castle because there was German gunfire coming towards the American planes from the castle! Below is the Castle, from lower Heidelberg.
To get to the castle we had to climb so many @$%#$ steps, we were out of breath! 315 steps to be exact (someone painted numbers on each step). My daughter and I stopped to take breathers after every 20 steps or so. The local Germans were trotting by laughing at us out of shape Americans! On one of our step breaks, we met up with another 'out of shape' American woman who's son was stationed in the Army in Germany. She was from Maryland. This castle was beautiful!
We left the Castle and went to the town of Heidelbert and visited a Pizza Hut! Ah....pizza....it was good!
So, on our last night in Europe we drank wine, talked and had a nice time. I knew this experience was a once in a lifetime thing. I'm so glad that I made the trip!
The next morning, we had to pack and get out to the airport by 10am. We arrived at Frankfurt (which is the biggest airport in Germany). We find that Icelandair cancelled my flight, so I am not flying out with Air France. If I wanted to fly with the damn French, I would have saved $100 in the beginning and flown with them. I was not happy! The flight was leaving immediately and we had a layover in Paris....
We wandered around the airport, I bought a few things from an overpriced gift store and got 2 mocha latte's to get on the plane with. 2 mocha latte's and 2 dry, gross, danish....$20! We nearly missed the plane....time change, wait in line and mean Paris people confused me..... We boarded the packed plane and were in the center seats on the plane. 3 seats in the middle, 3 on the left and 3 on the right. We watched movies the whole flight and ate wonderful food (believe it or not).
We landed at Dulles Airport, instead of Baltimore Washington International (where my car was). So we had to take a cab to BWI to get my car, then I drove back here. It was a long flight, long drive and long day the next day at work, but so very worth it!
I can't stop thinking of this wonderful adventure. I would so much love to go back and be a tourist again. I bought some "learn Polish in 2 days" books and an audio tape...but haven't started learning yet.
Photo's from my trip
Tower of Frankenstein's Castle, outside of Darmstadt Germany
Wonderful home on our many travels through rural Poland.
Swiet Lipka pulpit
Inside of Swiet Lipka. We are unable to take photo's with a flash in the church, as to not damage the beautiful paintings.
Pope John Paul passed away in April 2005. He was such a wonderful man, especially viewed this way to the Polish people. This was a tribute to him in one of the villages.
Former USSR apartments
Wonderful homes along rural roads that we passed on our travels.