That means “Thank You” in Polish and its pronounced “Jen Coo Ya Chee” and the J in Jen needs a buzzing Zh sound at the end of the J. Say it quickly three or four times and you’ll realize how pleasant it sounds and feels as it comes off the tongue. Before I came here, that was one of the phrases I learned, along with You’re Welcome, Good Morning, Good Night, Excuse Me, and Which Way to the Bathroom.
On the Saturday morning train from Rzeszow to Przemysl I was joined by three ladies, all smartly dressed, all probably in their late 40s, and all speaking what I thought was probably Ukrainian. It just sounds a bit different than Polish. I bid them Good Morning with “Dzien Dobry”. That dz sound is close the buzzing Zh sound and the second word is pronounced “Doe Bray” with a rolled R. Zhen Doe Bray. And as this is my second trip to Poland I believed my phrasing was tight. As soon as the “bray” rolled off my tongue, the brunette asked me if I was American.
“From the south, maybe Alabama?”
“Uhhhh…wow…actually South Carolina.”
“I’ve never been to South Carolina, I have seen much of your country. My name is Iryna and my friends Olga and Ivanna.”
After I introduced myself, Iryna asked me what brought me to Poland.
“I’m a chef and I’m cooking with World Central Kitchen in Przemysl.”
Iryna looked shocked or maybe surprised. She translated for her friends and they smiled a smile normally reserved for close friends.
“We are all from Kyiv, Ukraine and we came across the border in Medyka in mid-March. It was a terrifying journey and we didn’t eat for days. As soon as we crossed into Poland we were offered a bowl of stew, with beef and bulgur, like something we would make at home. It was so wonderful.”
“Iryna this is my second trip to Poland. I was cooking in Przemysl in mid-March.”
When my South Carolina words became Ukrainian words, there isn’t an adjective to describe their emotions. It was somewhere between gratitude, joy, grief, and mourning. I had played but a small part in their meal, but to them I was their savior. Olga reached out for my hand and held it while tears formed in her eyes. When Iryna caught her breath she told me she was a professional translator, Olga was a physics professor, and Ivanna owned several clothing stores. They had arrived at Medyka with a shred of their former lives, distilled down to what could fit inside a small rolling suitcase.
“We try not to think about what will wait for us when we return home but we will return home.”
I gave Iryna my card and mentioned to her I had written a few essays on my experiences in Poland and I want to return to help play another small part when the rebuilding begins in earnest. The train slowed and Iryna told me this was their stop. They were not going to Przemysl as I was, they were going to visit a friend. When the train had stopped I stood up and each gave me a hug and as Olga pulled away she gently held my hands in hers and whispered “Dziekuje Ci.”
I sat down, wiped my eyes with my shirt sleeve, and watched them walk away. Three women, all mothers, wives, and entrepreneurs, now cast to the wind thanks to the madness of one man. The train whistle blew, the cars gently shuddered and as we headed to Przemysl I thought about how grateful I was to be back in Poland.