Following my roots right into a pandemic

EYEWITNESS

After growing up in America, I came home to reconnect with my Polish roots only to find myself in self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Or is the answer to my question around Polish identity found right here in the middle of adversity?

When, as a child, I got off the plane that took me from Poland to America, I was hit with a wave of melancholy and misplacement that remained well through my adult years. The change wasn’t solely that of the country I was living in, but the family I was living with. Up until then, I was raised by my grandparents for the first eight years of my life while my parents were living and working in Chicago. But in 2004, I had to leave my home country and join my parents in the States. Although afterwards I visited Poland frequently and spent summers at my grandmother’s countryside home, the thought that I had to go back to the States in a matter of weeks haunted my every trip. 

Permanent relocation to Poland was always on my mind and despite not having lived there for a while and at times feeling too American when I visited, I knew I could always seek help from my grandfather and grandmother, who still live in the same home I grew up in. After I received my BA degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, I knew the move was finally possible. So this past February I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Warsaw, arriving only about two weeks prior to the coronavirus outbreak. 

My first days in Poland were wonderful and the virus was the farthest thing from my mind. Of course I was aware of the toll it was taking on certain countries, but my focus was on Warsaw and my future. The wait was over – I was finally in Poland and I was ready to start living my best life. I was convinced nothing could go wrong. It didn’t worry me that I didn’t know anyone in Warsaw apart from one childhood friend. I was sure that as soon as I found an apartment and settled in, I would start going out and meeting loads of people. 

So at first I explored the city all by myself, visited museums, tried out various restaurants, then I looked at apartments and set out to find a job. Neither took a long time, for which I am extremely grateful, especially given the situation that was to come. The apartment I managed to find was spacious and located right in the centre of Warsaw with two roommates who were eager to show me the area. However, as soon as I finished moving in, the implementation of cautionary measures was starting to take place. Suddenly, all conversations revolved around the coronavirus, people began buying excessive amounts of food and sanitary products, and I witnessed the shelves in a large grocery store go from full to empty in a single day. People were scared. 

Klaudia Zychowska is a Polish native who grew up in Chicago. She completed a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a double concentration in Creative Writing and Professional Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently resides in Warsaw.

Helping my babcia (grandmother) make pierogi

I had been so distracted with settling in that it wasn’t until then that I realised the true gravity of the situation. Schools were closed, people stayed home from work, the streets were beginning to empty. I felt like the world was turning upside down, and I kept thinking that if someone had told me only days before that this is what life would be like, I wouldn’t have believed them. Still, despite not having done any prior grocery shopping, I had unintentionally finished buying all the necessary things for my apartment right before the majority of the stores inside malls had closed for a period of two weeks. And the job I was starting was remote, so I didn’t have to worry about not being able to work and pay rent. Despite being in an unfamiliar city during a pandemic where every face was that of a stranger, I knew things could be much worse. 

My childhood friend who had been living in Warsaw for the past five years left for our hometown immediately and despite having an invitation, I knew that if I were to go back with her, I would be potentially exposing my grandparents to the virus, whose immune systems aren’t very strong. So I stayed. One of my roommates went back home as well, leaving only me and another girl in the apartment. That first weekend, my grandmother kept calling me and telling me to stock up on as much food as possible, and my mother, whose outbreak-related worries were keeping her up at night, urged me to eat garlic daily to strengthen my immune system. The conversations were a combination of listening to each other’s worries and reassuring each other that everything will be fine, regardless of whether we believed it ourselves or not. 

After the initial shock was over, things seemed to settle down a little bit. This was our temporary reality and we all had to manage to live in it, because what other option was there? 

Now, a week into self-isolation, I am staying sane by keeping myself busy with work, taking short walks, listening to a lot of true crime and comedy podcasts, and speaking to my grandmother everyday. She tells me that she and my grandfather are trying to limit their intake of the news and keep their minds off of the outbreak by busying themselves around the house and in their garden. Her fear is much bigger than mine. She doesn’t see anyone outside – no kids, no adults, no dogs – and it’s a haunting image for her. Although she tries her best to stay positive, she views this as a dark and frightening time, telling me that she is more terrified than during martial law in communist Poland. 

When I go outside, I see near-empty buses and signs taped on the front doors of beauty salons, independent grocery stores and coffee shops that say they are temporarily closed. But I also always see a few Varsovians venturing out to walk their dogs, do the grocery shopping or simply just to get some fresh air after being inside all day. Warsaw – the city that always seems to be in a rush – is managing a new reality. Life has slowed down for everyone. 

The other day, life felt a bit normal – the sun was out and a lot more people were enjoying the weather, but then as I was about to step inside a supermarket, a store employee stopped me, explaining that I had to wait because they had a maximum amount of customers allowed in, and I was reminded again of the deep fear. When I went home, my remaining roommate told me she had booked a flight back home to Ukraine, afraid the border situation might become worse. 

When I was planning my return to Poland to chase my roots and finally live in the country I had been missing, I never thought my first month here would be anything like this. In a lot of ways, my reassimilation into Polish culture has been put on hold, but it has also helped me realise the strength and unity of Poles in times of trouble. I have never witnessed widespread fear like this, and it’s helped me understand the gravity of the fear that my parents and grandparents felt during communist Poland. This time has allowed me to reflect on what’s most important, and this has truly solidified that coming back was the right choice for me. 

Polish solidarity is one of a kind – I’ve never seen anything like it outside its borders, especially in America. It’s a difficult situation for all of us, especially with the uncertainty of the future. My Varsovian solitude often makes me feel like I’m alone in this, so I try to remind myself that I’m not the only one struggling right now, and that this pandemic will eventually come to an end.

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Written by: Klaudia Zychowska

Klaudia Zychowska is a Polish native who grew up in Chicago. She completed a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a double concentration in Creative Writing and Professional Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently resides in Warsaw.