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Dépaysement: Always a tourist, never at home

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APRIL 13, 2023

Apparently, it is an early hour in the afternoon when I finally wake up and slowly head toward the fragrant kitchen. I see my mother, faintly humming to herself while she stews wild forest mushrooms for lunch. Familiar childhood scents lift through the room and caress me. If I squint my eyes just right and allow my other senses to take over my sight, for a moment I find myself in my grandmother’s kitchen. It feels amazing to finally be home.

Above the sink hang little traces of our history and culture: a figurine of an angel holding a horn, plates crafted in the style of Polish ceramics and of course the brilliant ruby-red Krakowskie korale. There was nothing I wore with greater pride as a child — each bead of the korale is gently wrapped in a printed cloth and together are threaded onto a complimentary ribbon. 

The kitchen, of course, is not the only cultural center we keep in our house. In fact, my entire home boasts an eclectic collection of national memorabilia. However, as much as this place brings me comfort, it is only a pale imitation of the country that raised me. 

Even when I do my absolute best to remember the seasons, memories evade me. Even if I can picture the yellow Easter chickens hidden all over the main market square, the smell of red poppies escapes my olfactory archives. Even when I remember the crunch of the leaves under my feet in the Las Kabacki, I’ve lost the memory of what it felt like to hug my grandmother wrapped in furs. Even if my tongue greets a snowflake, I forget the winter fashions of my so-called honorary tundra. Even if California’s summer sun warms my skin just like the Polish one does, I can never quite find the taste of perfect summer kompot z truskawkami.

This August will mark five years since my immigration to the United States. I can never decide on if I left home too soon, or far too late. On one hand, I got to experience my childhood and early teenage years entirely consumed by my culture and history, but, on the other, I left too late to ever be anything but Polish. My connection with my country meant I could never fully connect with my new one, and with that realization came the acceptance of my permanent displacement.

Dépaysement is a French word that describes the “feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country; being a foreigner. It’s almost like feeling homesick but more intense; you can feel that you don’t really belong.” I experience this emotion by seeing myself as an eternal tourist: always foreign, never truly home.

My first semester in college sent me into an extensive spiral on my Polish identity, as now, I no longer had my mother’s barszczyk and łazanki to feed me into my culture. Our constant conversations turned to weekly calls, and soon became my only outlet to speak my first language. I was rapidly losing a hold on who I was as an individual, and I noticed that my grasp of Polish poetry had begun to slip away. It was the first of many things to leave.

Soon after poetry followed my command of language, so did my knowledge of Polish history. Bit by bit, my entire connection to my ancestry was picked away by the ax of displacement. There was nothing I could do to stop it; all that was left to do was to sit back and lose myself. 

Not too long ago, my mother met a Polish woman in Santa Fe, who left the country in 1968. Their paths crossed at a store for Bolesławiec ceramics, and for a while they shared in their nostalgia. When recounting this memory to me, my mother noted that the woman she had met spoke Polish at the level of my Canadian step-father, and how she had clearly grown into an American identity. Through her story, I found myself in the woman my mother met. I saw my future in her words, and went utterly mad over the idea of losing my culture. This semester, I tucked a course on Polish literature into my schedule. For the first time since I was 14, I began reading academically in my mother tongue again.

I find pockets of Poland when the rain hits the Earth, and the smell of wet concrete greets my nose. I find them when my loved ones laugh, as human joy knows no linguistic barriers. I find them in tiny Polish stores scattered around this country, packed to the brim with Michałki, dried wild forest mushrooms and tea made from every possible plant. I find them when reading the works of Olga Tokarczuk, who explores Polish identity and people with remarkable nuance. I find them when I walk by Mulford Hall listening to the songs of Maryla Rodowicz, the person who raised me in melody. Just last week, I found a Polish medieval manuscript at the Bancroft Library’s archives, and, before I even realized, I was walking alongside my father in the Kraków National History Museum, talking about the old Slavic gods.

Miriam Klaczynska writes the Thursday column on words that can't be translated into English. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 13, 2023