A Whirlwind Tour Around Poland

The memoirist trades Tuscany for the northern light and unexpected pleasures of Krakow and Gdansk

Krakow possesses a wealth of cultural treasures such as Wawel Royal Castle where the country's kings lived. (Christophe Boisvieux / Corbis)
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Ed has some place names, so we drive west for two hours to the castle town of Bytow, then through forests carpeted with white flowers. Shortly, we come to tiny Ugoszcz. Without Ewelina, we would have found nothing, but she directs us to stop for directions, and we follow as she marches up to the priest's house. To our surprise he answers, takes our hands with metacarpal-crushing handshakes, brings us inside and pulls out old ledgers with brown ink calligraphy recording baptisms back to the 1700s. He's utterly familiar with these books. As Ed says the family names, he flips pages and calls out other names well known in Minnesota. He locates grandmothers, great- and great-great-uncles and aunts, great-great-grandfathers, some who left, some who stayed. He copies two certificates in Latin and Polish and gives them to Ed. One, from 1841, records the birth of his great-grandfather Jacobus Kulas; the other, from 1890, records that of his grandmother Valeria Ursula Breske. We visit the 13th-century church across the road, a wooden beauty, where relatives were baptized.

Driving back to Gdansk, Ed is stopped for speeding. The young officers seem intrigued that they have caught Americans. Ewelina explains that Ed has come all this way to find his ancestors. They look at his license and ask him about his family. "Oh, lots of Kleismits in the next town," says one. They let us go without a fine.

Ewelina tells us we must see the Art Nouveau sea resort Sopot. Ed wants to visit Bialowieza, the primeval forest with roaming bison. I'd like to see Wroclaw, where our Polish workers lived. Although we've slept well in Poland, the best trips make you feel more awake than ever. On the way to the airport, Ed gazes dreamily at cherry trees whizzing by the window. Just as I check my calendar for when we might return, he turns and says, "Shall we come back next May?"

Frances Mayes' Every Day in Tuscany will be published in March 2010. She lives in North Carolina and Cortona, Italy.


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