In 1994, as a part of moving into a new chapter in my life, I joined the Peace Corps. Over three decades since my college days, to me the Corps was an enduring legacy of the Kennedy years. Along with 58 fellow volunteers, I arrived in Poland, fewer than five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which had stood as a threat to the West for most of my life.

At the end of our training, I was assigned to teach in a teachers’ college in Jazstrzebie Zdroj, a city of 125,000 near the Czech border.

My students and I bonded over our mutual love of language and our awareness that we were playing a small role in a cultural and political transition, the ends of which were by no means clear. They were open to my American teaching methods. I benefited greatly from their help in my adjustment to Polish and the ins and outs of daily life in their community.

A few months into my teaching, one of my students, Andrzej, invited me to his family’s flat for coffee. His father, retired from the mines at 55, was clearly excited to have an American guest, perhaps to break up the long day while his wife was off at work and his sons at school.

After speaking rapidly to me in Polish, Pan Sawicki disappeared into one of the bedrooms and emerged, having changed into a dress shirt and slacks. He began rummaging in a closet in the living room wall. “We’re going to see some souvenirs now,” Andrzej said with a combination sigh and roll of eyes.

Out of a box emerged a black pillbox hat with the crossed-hammers insignia of miners. Out of tissue paper came a flock of long white feathers mounted on a dowel. These were attached to the hat. Next, a navy blue uniform jacket with epaulettes, braid and medals: four on the left breast (gold, silver, gold and cosmic), one on the right. Donning the hat and coat, chuckling that it was now too snug in the midriff, he retrieved a sheathed ceremonial sword from another closet, drew it with a flourish – a respected leader of the local miners, one of the most honored professions in the workers’ paradise of communist Poland.

“He had to buy all of it,” Andrzej mused with the tender disdain of a new generation. “All to be kept in a closet and taken out once a year for the Labor Day parade.”

I spun a new phrase on my tongue: “Nowy czas.”

“Yes,” said the son, “New times: nowy czasci” (ever-so-gently correcting his English teacher).

Pan Sawicki brought out a photo album, pointing out the 5-year-old version of Andrzej. Both father and son showed great pride in the pictures of the younger brother on the basketball team. As I prepared to leave the hot, tiny 10th-floor flat, I glanced in the brothers’ bedroom. Completely covering one wall was a mural poster of Michael Jordan in full flight. “Nowy czasci.”

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