The woman is wearing a purple hat

We drove down from Connecticut in our solid station wagon, cooler plugged into the socket in the back, map display on the dash, and my phone and google maps both telling us exactly where we were. And where the traffic jams are. And where the alternate routes are. When they both agree, we take their advice. They took us off the highway at Mamaroneck. Maps can’t do that. They can’t give you an instant view into your future. But a good map and a new route and a way to read it…pure pleasure.

Merv vowed to take his mother to Poland one night after many beers, glasses of wine and brandy. She was wistful. She was sad. She was sorely disappointed. Her life was incomplete. Nobody who really loved her would be able to help themselves from responding. Merv really loved her. Yes, he would take her to Poland, the land of her parents, the land of the language she had spoken till she was 6. Yes he would take her.

In the morning Merv did not remember his vow. Mom did. I did. Mom’s companion did. Merv was appalled. Merv was stuck. I was excited. I had just read an article about the Vistula River that flows north from the mountains in the south to the Baltic Sea. Lots of medieval cities. Lots of castles, palaces. Roads parallel it. You pick it up near Warsaw, follow it down to Krakow, then pick up a tributary and bingo you are at Mom’s family village.

Travel had just opened up to Poland. Church groups had been able to go, led by Polish priests, subscribed by the Rosary Society, the devout women of the church. St Hedwigs in Dunkirk sent a pilgrimage many years that culminated at the visit to the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Częstochowa. People talked about it. They talked about going to Ches-to-hova. When people talked about Poland or the Polish it sounded quite normal. Stacia became Stacy. A last name was pronounced Ple-sew-ski. Or Jur-zag. Or Cho-dark. Easy-Peasy! We didn’t need a devout guide. We didn’t need to camouflage ourselves and sneak on a tour. We could do it ourselves.

I sent for a book of detailed maps, and a big map too. We opened up the big map first. It covered the dining room table. And then I saw. I could not navigate. I could not read the map. Every single town, every single river, was entirely unreadable. Not because the map was half in Russian script, which it was, but because the other half was in Polish, which has an unconscionable number of consonants to vowels. And somehow, if I could not pronounce the city, or the town, or the river, I could not read the map. We were sunk before we started.

Merv had promised. I had witnessed. So I sent for a language program, Rosetta Stone for Polish. Every day I studied it. Every day I learned a new phrase. Rosetta Stone then prided itself on how different it was from normal language programs. None of this “Where is the loo?” “Please give me a double room.” “The weather forecasts rain.” “Here is my passport.” It shoved you right into language the way a 6 year old learns it. Phrases like “The yellow car is under the blue plane.” “The little boy is in the blue plane.” Long phrases and sentences that I practiced over and over. Surely I would get to the end of the course and hit something I could use, like “Do you have petrol?” I could say in very good Polish “The lady is wearing a purple hat” or “The fish are swimming in the river” but had not a useful traveling phrase at all.

I could read the map now, though. I was undaunted by a series of 10 consonants in a row, a single vowel, and then another series of 10 consonants. I could read it in my head. I could say it out loud and be understood! I could navigate.

We charted a course down the Vistula River. No superhighway. Lots of little roads, little towns. And a ferry across a tributary. Bliss! A ferry! The ferry had a little statement in Polish next to it on the map. No doubt a hint of its history.

We arrived in Poland. We stayed one night at an international hotel. Everyone on the staff spoke English. We left Warsaw. We drove. It was Sunday. We got to the ferry. It was firmly anchored to the bank. Apparently the Polish read “Does not run on Sunday.” The map found us a bridge and an hour’s detour. We got to our night’s destination. I discovered that “I would like a beer please” is not hard to say in Polish. And that “I would like another” is actually easier.

I vowed to use every phrase I had learned. “The yellow car is next to the red car” wasn’t hard. “The apples are in the box” took a little scouting as we drove through the small towns, but market day in one helped. We were nearing the end of our trip, though, and walking through Krakow and I had not seen a single woman in a purple hat. Not one. We walked the elegant old city streets. It was a beautiful day. No one was wearing any hat at all. And then, in a store, I saw it, a Kapelusz fioletowy! But it wasn’t on a “Kobieta.” No one, not a clerk, not a mannequin, was wearing a kapelusz fioletowy. I pulled Mom into the store. I asked for the kapelusz fiolotowy. I put it on my head, looked in the mirror and said “Kobieta ma na sobie kapelusz fioletowy.” The woman was impressed. Mom was impressed. I took the hat off my head, said “Dziękuję Ci” and left. Actually, I said “Jen kuye.” The Rosetta Stone course never taught me that. Mom had to.

My devices are close by. I am typing on one. Another sits close to hand. But I think that I will take a paper map, one that folds out like an accordion, to walk through Philadelphia today.