Finding the Hidden Pieces
November 2022 | By Agnes Groonwald | 2 minute read
Traveling has the funny ability to change not just how we see the world, but how we see ourselves. Agnes Groonwald often felt “othered” by her Polish heritage, but visiting Poland for the first time ushered in a new era of self-love, understanding, and pride. After visiting the town where her mother was born, greeting distant family members, and walking in the footsteps of her ancestors, Agnes was finally able to embrace a part of her identity she once hid from. Traveling is a powerful agent of change, and while we can’t predict who we’ll be when we return home, we do know we’ll be changed for the better.
I grew up in Chicago as the child of Polish immigrants. My mother is from Goniądz, a small town not far from Belarus. My father was from the Warsaw suburbs. Saturdays in Chicago were dedicated to Polish school where I learned how to read, write, and talk with some level of authority on Polish geography. It seemed like a punishment.
Living in Chicago, a city with more Poles than many Polish towns, I was surrounded by reminders of my parents’ homeland, which I took for granted. I didn't want to be an "other," the child of immigrants. At times, I was even embarrassed by my parents' accents or lack of understanding of American cultural norms. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood, unfortunately after my father passed away, that my mother finally agreed to take me to Poland.
That trip to Poland changed how I understood my parents and how I understood myself. It helped me love myself.
We saw the home my father grew up in and met distant relatives for the first time. We traveled south to Kraków and met the Wawel Dragon, breathing fire on cue in the least menacing way. We spent a full week in my mother’s hometown, a place rebuilt from the ground up following World War II and now a haven for birders thanks to the Biebrza River.
I took a second trip with my husband and two friends several years later. It was this trip that allowed me to embrace my “otherness” as a strength. I showed off places I’d been before, navigated menus in my native language, and shared pieces of myself that had been hidden away growing up. We laughed over pickled herring and vodka shooters and cried over a guided visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We marveled over the resilience of this place.
Travel opens minds. In my case, it helped me open my own and better appreciate where I came from. I discovered that I love the place that has since become such an important piece of who I am.