10 year old me in Poland, summer of 1980

I’m writing this post as I was inspired by Symbol Reader’s post The Gift of Otherness.  She had remarked, “I have been thinking a lot recently what being Polish means” to her.  Reading her post made me wax nostalgic for one of the most treasured times in my life.

33 years ago, my grandmother and two older sisters and I went on a 3-week whirlwind tour of Poland, spending time in Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Zakopane and surrounding neighborhoods of each.   I turned 10 in the middle of my trip to Poland.

It was really wonderful birthday year because I celebrated my birthday three times, once in Poland, once when we returned to the Chicago area (where my grandparents lived) and once back home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  On my birthday, I received a present from our tour guide.  It was a Russian Matryoshka doll that I still have, and someone else gave me a really neat little carved box that you couldn’t open unless you knew that you had to slide a little secret panel.  Sadly, I don’t have that box anymore.  My sisters and I also brought home some Polish Folk dolls.   That’s not my website, by the way…

My doll was one of the Lajkonik.

The Lajkonik is one of the unofficial symbols of the city Krakow. It is represented as a bearded man resembling a Tartar, dressed in Mongolian attire with a white decorated paper-mache horse around his waist.

I found this website with more information about The Lajkonik.
which had this great youtube video, posted on July 26 of 2010.  I do remember this character when we were there.  What a longstanding tradition!

I also remember my grandmother buying me a blue and white paper mache clown on a bicycle and a pink paper mache music box for my second oldest sister.  I am pretty sure my mother still had the doll and the paper mache bicycle clown for a long time.  I’ll have to dig through my photos to see if I still have any pictures of them from the last time I visited her house.

My memories are a little sketchy of that time, and my grandmother passed away so I can’t get a refresher anymore, which saddens me.  But I’ll do my best to share what I remember.

Because it was in the summer of 1980, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the trip we took was risky, considering the political climate at the time.

According to NATO’s website

In the summer of 1980, a series of strikes and factory occupations broke out across Poland in response to a government decision to raise the prices of consumer goods, especially meat. In August of that year a major strike took place in Gdansk, and from there it spread across the country, causing a massive disruption to the economy. The government chose negotiation rather than repression and retaliation, and on 31 August signed the Gdansk agreement, which granted workers numerous rights, including the ability to form free trade unions.

This agreement lead to the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity in September 1980. Solidarity spread rapidly throughout the country. It was the core of an anti-communist movement, with ties to the Roman Catholic Church and the intelligentsia. Solidarity sought to limit government and party control of workers and working conditions, and represented a strong challenge to the Polish United Workers’ Party.

There was much concern in the West in general and in NATO specifically over the threat of intervention in Poland by the Soviet Union. Considerable military build-up occurred along the Soviet-Polish border. Several eastern European leaders, notably those from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, made threats and statements about intervening. The NATO policy at that time was that Poland should be able to manage its own affairs without outside interference. There was much high level debate and correspondence, both within the North Atlantic Council and between the Secretary General and the national ambassadors. NATO reactions to a possible Soviet Union invasion of Poland included both economic sanctions and military show of force.

For more history of the Summer Strikes of Poland, you can read here


“As early as July 1980 certain of the strikes showed signs of the forces that were to be unleashed within a month. In Lublin, for example, stoppages occurred in all the major manufacturing and service industries.”

Since we were there in July of 1980, I recall the massive lines for buying groceries and while I was rather oblivious to the seriousness of the time, I do remember that there was a concern that we might not get out of the country, due to the increasing tensions from the strikes.  We were told they might prevent our leaving.

But since I was able to come back home to share pictures and tales about my Polish adventure, I’ll do just that.

I’m not sure, but this might be in Old Town, Warsaw.  It doesn’t look this dreary now – it’s very brightly colored in Old Town after they renovated it, so it’s very hard for me to place these buildings.  The only reason I say this is that we started out in Warsaw, and I seem to recall our first bus tour guide being this older gentleman sitting on the ground.

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I’m the shortest girl in the back row, with the glasses in the light blue printed shirt.  I was totally dorked out, I know. My second oldest sister was to the left of me in the striped shirt, and the cranky looking girl (a common expression on her face, by the way, as she was not impressed by much of anything) on the right of me was my oldest sister.  My grandmother was the white-haired lady in the front row, the first one from the left and behind her was a very close friend of hers.    I don’t remember the teenaged-girl’s name with the curly hair and glasses, I just know we spent a bit of time hanging out with her.  I seem to recollect calling her “Curly Top” or some such nickname.

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One of the craziest things I remember laying down in my hotel bed in Warsaw was the fact that we listened to some music and I heard this tune –  made famous by the Muppets.

It was so surprising, to be so far from home and hear this tune.  I was a HUGE Muppet Show fan.

I remember the electric outlets being different than the ones at home, and you can actually buy a special Poland plug adapters from Amazon these days; having ice cream with rum sauce (or something like that); and some sort of weird clear gelatinous goo garnishing a lot of my meat dishes.  I also remember my grandmother buying out much of the Polish amber (just kidding, she only bought a few pieces of jewelry, that she used to wear for the remainder of her life).

The Royal Castle in Warsaw.  I find it really interesting that the tower spire is still dark, because this castle was rebuilt in 1970.  Newer photos of The Royal Castle show the spires oxidized to it’s green patina over time. photo scan0066.jpg

Somewhere, at my mother’s house, we have a picture of Sigismund’s Column

There’s me feeding the pigeons in the square.

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My second oldest sister went to visit the salt mines in Wieliczka, near Krakow, while my grandmother and oldest sister and I went to visit some cousins.  In retrospect, while it was nice to visit my Polish cousins out in the country, and had fun hanging with them and playing with their animals, after I saw what the salt mines looked like, it would have been an awesome trip.

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We visited a LOT of churches during our time there.  From small country chapels to the ornate Monastery of Jasna Góra to see the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa and the Black Madonna.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently on their website, “The Monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, Poland, is the third-largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Home to the beloved miraculous icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, the monastery is also the national shrine of Poland and the center of Polish Catholicism.”

I didn’t realize that as 10 year old girl, I went on a Catholic pilgrimage.  I just remember that at this place, along with other famous places like the Wawel Castle, and Chopin’s birthplace in Żelazowa Wola, there were rules we had to follow: stay quiet, don’t touch anything and stay close.  I’m not sure if we were asked to don the felt shoes over our street shoes, but that was also something the Castle did to protect the floors.

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I don’t have pictures of it, but we spent some time in Gdansk.  I have very little memory of Gdansk, but I remember I was so delighted to bring home a tiny jar of sand from a beach on the Baltic sea, and I had it for years, but I think it was lost or thrown out over the years.

We traveled south to Zakopane and went rafting on the Dunajec Gorge.  I don’t know where my grandmother and oldest sister were, but if they were on another raft, we don’t have a picture of it.  I remember my grandmother buying me a hand carved walking stick in Zakopane and being quite thrilled with it, because the artisan carved my name into it.  I still have it somewhere in this house (misplaced, unfortunately because my daughters liked to play with it).

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From what I read, the rafting tours currently last two or three hours.  And I have to say, I love photo enhancing software so that I could zoom in.  There’s little old bespectacled me sitting next to my bespectacled curly-topped acquaintance.

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We also visited Auschwitz, and though I don’t have pictures to share, I found something even more jaw-dropping.

I’m going to say, this video is short, but intense.

About 16 seconds into it, you can see the “Death Wall”.  I still have memories of my grandmother asking me to take flowers to place at the wall in remembrance of those who were summarily executed.  In my recollections of this time, everything moved really slow. I remember a dark, gloomy, somber shade to my memories.  I’m incredibly moved by the young boy in the video who placed something in the wall, then turned to his mother for a hug.

I don’t know what my sisters remember of that time, but I came back from Poland and ended up using that Auschwitz trip for poster presentations and a long essay.  I am so upset that I lost that essay, because I kept it for a very, very long time.  I think I titled it Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free), which was fashioned in the wrought iron gate to Auschwitz.

I might have to turn the memory I have of that time into it’s own post, or just write my own personal essay for myself and daughters.  There’s so many things I’m reminded of as I watch that video.

Maybe some day I might return with my husband and daughters, to share with our girls their Polish heritage.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
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5 Responses to 10 year old me in Poland, summer of 1980

  1. Beautiful! That must have been an eventful journey, packed to the brim with attractions; a real grand tour. Poland has obviously changed a lot since then, it looks more “Western” nowadays. I lived most of my life in Krakow, then a year in Gdansk. I suspect the first photo was taken there, in Gdansk but I am not completely sure.
    Thank you for posting this – you made me very happy.

    • Casey says:

      Aw, thank you.

      I made me really happy, too, to write it.

      And yes, I’m looking at modern photos of these places and am stunned with some of the changes. It looks so very bright in place whereas, obviously, things were much more gray back then.

      Yes, maybe the photo was from Krakow. I wonder if my sisters remember anything. After all, they were older than I was.

      I have SO many memories of this time. I hadn’t realized how much we had taken in over three weeks, but it was definitely a grand tour. I haven’t even covered all the little details – the sculptures, the Polish dance with the handkerchief at the pub where the younger tour guide kissed me on the cheek and I freaked out and ran to the bathroom and cried. And I swear I thought there was a real person wearing the The Lajkonik costume (complete with horse), but maybe my imagination is making that up.

      Oh, no, it’s NOT, LOL


      I know now, how absolutely lucky I am to have been able to be there when I was young and full of energy. I know if I took that pace now, I’d be exhausted mid-way through, lol!

  2. Phil says:

    Very nice! I love the way you describe your memories, and it is obvious they have made a deep impression, even at such a tender young age.

    In the summer of 1980, I was in Italy on an extended 6 week trip and delayed honeymoon. I remember the political situation well, if only from the Italian press talking about the tensions in Poland.

    • Casey says:

      Oh, most definitely, Phil, the trip made a tremendous impression.

      I really wish that I started keeping a travel journal back then, because that would have been absolutely amazing to be able to have my 10 year old thoughts recorded. There’s so many things I saw that I have just vague recollections about. I reach deep into my memory banks, but the memories are so gauzy that I can’t quite be sure that what I’m remembering is even real.

      I absolutely adore traveling and seeing different places and cultures, and I am a bit of a amateur historian.

      That’s so amazing that we were both abroad at that time and both in Europe. Italy would be a wonderful place to visit, too, because my half-siblings are from there. And of course it would be neat to visit Ireland and Germany, because my daughters are part Irish and German.

      I hope you had a lovely honeymoon.

      My husband and I went on a Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon – we toured the ruins of Tulum, Mexico, swam with the stingrays in Grand Cayman, walked up Dunn’s RIver falls in Jamaica, and took a pirate ship to snorkle off Labadee Haiti (at the time, I don’t think there was as much political unrest as there had been, but I could be wrong). That was an amazing trip too!

      I kind of wish now we ventured farther out of the country though.

  3. Pingback: Still Here: Leon’s Healing Journey Of Soulful Blogging | SolitaryThinkers

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